“Follow these words: Serve without fear,” Francis said, on his first foreign trip since becoming pope in March. “Bringing the Gospel is bringing God’s power to rip out and raze evil and violence, to destroy and demolish the barriers of selfishness, intolerance and hatred to build a new world.”
Conveyed in Catholic imagery, it was an appeal for young people energized by the gathering to draw closer to a church that religious analysts say has grown out of touch and lost followers by the millions in recent years, a trend readily apparent in this continent-size country where Catholicism once dominated.
Inspiring ordinary people and his own clergy was a vital part of Francis’s mission.
The day before, in a Saturday meeting with bishops, the pontiff stressed that outreach must be done in more simple, accessible language and in a more energetic way. Using unusually blunt terms, he spoke of the exodus of Catholics and of a church that is a “prisoner of its own rigid formulas.”
“I would like all of us to ask ourselves today, ‘Are we still a church capable of warming hearts?’ ” the pontiff said.
But during his visit, in events large and small in the shadow of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue on Mount Corcovado, the pope was focused on more than just drawing lapsed Catholics back to the fold.
Francis also stressed that the church will be a forceful advocate of social justice and fair play. In a visit to a slum Thursday, he said the rich must do more to narrow vast social inequality. He told followers not to become disillusioned by corruption, talked about public frustration with crime and spoke of the importance of dialogue in resolving disputes.
The pope met with prison inmates and drug addicts, and he heard confessions in a Rio park alongside priests from around the world. To the consternation of his security service and Brazilian officials, the pope broke protocol by wading into crowds and, while riding in a nondescript Fiat sedan, rolling down the window to touch followers and kiss babies.
For Ana Paula Santos, 24, who works the register at a store and came from Brazil’s Minas Gerais state to see Francis, it was a lesson in humility that to her demonstrated how the pope is living the teachings of Jesus.
“My faith has grown strong now,” she said, “and I want to embrace this faith even more.”
John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries,” a look at power and politics in the Catholic Church, said Catholics the world over have heard a lot about the pope’s pastoral touch and his agenda on social issues since he replaced Benedict XVI.