On the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, the Rev. Stefano Nastasi threw the ecclesiastic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.
Legions of largely Muslim refugees looking for a better life in Europe were reaching the island from North Africa only to perish, or to be turned back or sent to languish in camps. Troubled by their plight, the priest dispatched a letter to the Vatican: Would Pope Francis come and highlight the humanitarian crisis in his new back yard?
When the answer finally came, Nastasi said he was as surprised as anyone: Why yes, in fact, the Holy Father would. In something of a trial run ahead of the first major trip of his papacy — a week-long visit to Brazil that begins Monday — Francis touched down on the island July 8 and behaved in a way that got observers buzzing about the rise of a revolutionary pope.
Only days earlier, Mercedes-Benz had presented Francis with a new bulletproof popemobile. But the first Latin American pontiff, who has largely rejected the lavish trappings of his office, traveled around the island in a borrowed, open-top Fiat. His predecessor’s words once sparked riots in predominantly Muslim countries. But from an impromptu altar made out of a rickety raft, Francis welcomed “the dear Muslim immigrants who are beginning the fast of Ramadan.” He called for more-humane treatment of immigrants regardless of faith and an end to the “globalization of indifference.”
“Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” he said, referring to seven refugees who recently drowned after fishermen failed to aid them near the island. “Who has wept for the people who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who wanted something to support their families?”
In the four months since he became pope, Francis has emerged as the great hope of a church facing a management crisis at headquarters and major challenges from secularism and rival faiths. Talk now is less about the irreversible decline of an out-of-touch papacy and more about whether Francis will fulfill the early hype and connect with a complex, diverse and increasingly modern global audience in a way that Pope Benedict XVI never really could. Francis’s biggest test yet comes this week, during his visit to the world’s largest predominantly Roman Catholic country. In Brazil, the Argentine-born pope will find a microcosm of the church’s greatest opportunities and most thorny challenges.
In Brazil, the pontiff’s message of social justice could not be more timely. This year, Latin America’s largest nation has seen its biggest bouts of social unrest since the early 1990s. Ostensibly over bus fares, the rash of protests came to encapsulate the frustrations of millions in a country that, despite years of economic growth, still harbors a vast underclass and deep income disparities.
The 76-year-old pope will be wading into a security challenge, especially when he rides through the still-unsettled streets of Rio de Janeiro without his popemobile. But he is also, many say, heading into a golden opportunity to resell the faith to the disenfranchised masses who have been taking to the streets. In recent decades, the Brazilian Catholic church has been steadily losing ground to evangelical faiths.
The percentage of Catholics in Brazil dropped from 93 percent of the population in 1960 to 65 percent in 2010. But the new pope has piqued the interest of Brazilians like Paula Mora, 18, a university economics student. The daughter of practicing Catholics, she grew up distant from the church and never attends Mass. And yet, she said, she can’t help but notice how Francis has rejected the luxury associated with the church’s hierarchy and gone out of his way to bond with ordinary people.
“I think it’s exciting — it is a big deal,” she said about his trip. “I have a lot of sympathy with this pope, more than with the others.”
In a sign of the “Francis boom,” the new pope’s Sunday blessings in St. Peter’s Square are drawing far greater numbers than Benedict’s did. In Italy, a recent poll found his approval rating at 92 percent, with 13 percent saying his arrival had led them to attend Mass more frequently. In the United States, an April poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 84 percent of Catholics held a favorable view of the new pope, compared with 67 percent who felt the same about Benedict in his first year.
Francis’s image is transcending the world of youth-group singalongs and Sunday Mass. Atheists are penning odes to his walk-the-walk manner. The Italian edition of Vanity Fair named him Man of the Year. Suzy Menkes, longtime style editor of the International Herald Tribune, suggested that the pope’s aesthetic of austerity may have influenced a shift in Milan fashion toward “discreet, sober, even chaste outfits.” CNN recently pondered whether the compassionate, media-savvy new pope was the modern-day Diana, Princess of Wales.
“I would sum up the way American Catholics are feeling with one word: finally,” said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries.” “Finally, we have a pope who is a real human being and who understands that you can’t teach poverty while you’re sitting on a gilded throne.”
Still, experts say Francis’s impact will remain checked until Catholics see how he handles issues that have truly divided the church, including the role of women. One of the most energizing events in years for many in the U.S. church was last year’s “Nuns on the Bus” campaign, during which a group of sisters toured the country to protest proposed government budget cuts that would affect the poor. Many Catholics were angered by the Vatican’s move to investigate the nuns for focusing too little on issues such as abortion. Weeks after taking office, Francis chose to reaffirm the investigation, alarming even more liberal Catholics.
This month, the new pope updated Vatican laws to explicitly criminalize abuse and possession of child pornography. But critics largely dismissed the effort as token. They point to the Vatican’s still-unclear response to a request from a U.N. panel for information on church sex-abuse cases as a better test of how much transparency Francis will usher in.
And yet, some argue that he has taken early steps that could, if followed through with enough vigor, signal a shake-up of business as usual in Vatican City. He has continued in the same austere vein as when he was cardinal of Buenos Aires, declining to live in the 10-room papal apartment and instead moving into quarters typically reserved for Vatican guests. Partly a symbol of his quest to build a “poorer” church, the move, Vatican watchers say, also suggested a desire to distance himself from the Roman Curia — the bureaucrats who run Vatican City and have faced waves of corruption allegations.
In what some view as a first step toward challenging the Curia’s stronghold on Vatican affairs, the pope has decreed the creation of a new panel of cardinals from around the globe to advise him on the running of the church and reform of its bureaucracy. He also named a new commission to review the scandal-plagued Institute for Religious Works, also known as the Vatican Bank, which roared back into the spotlight recently after an Italian monsignor was charged with an alleged plot to illicitly transfer $26.4 million from accounts in Switzerland.
The scandal sparked the resignation — believed to have come with the pope’s blessing — of the bank’s director and deputy director, Paolo Cipriani and Massimo Tulli.
“On the Curia, I think the Holy Father is in the middle of consulting a lot of people to see what can be changed and how can it be changed,” said Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in Vatican City. “We are touching on some delicate aspects.”
Faiola reported from London. Juan Forero in Rio de Janeiro and Michelle Boorstein in Washington contributed to this report.