Pope Francis embraces a boy at the end of Sunday Angelus prayer from the summer residence in Castel Gandolfo July 14, 2013. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

One of Latin America’s best-known and most polemical theologians, Leonardo Boff, has often tangled with a Catholic Church hierarchy he has described as authoritarian and out of touch with this region.

In his books, the Brazilian has written about how the Vatican had little interest in the kind of social transformation he contends is needed to lift the poor — criticism that led Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, to censure him in 1985. But Boff, a former Franciscan priest, sees hope in Pope Francis, who arrives in Brazil on Monday in the first major pilgrimage of a new papacy that has energized Catholics here and elsewhere in Latin America.

“Pope Francis always goes back to the issues of the poor,” Boff, 74, said in an interview after unveiling his 92nd book, which focuses on Francis and asks in the subtitle, “A new spring for the church?”

“And he has said, ‘You don’t help the poor with philanthropy but with social justice.’ Social justice requires change in society,” Boff said, speaking of a structural transformation he believes Latin America needs. “This is not something you usually hear from popes. They want to be distant, neutral — not him. He speaks from below for all to hear.”

Coming after a German pope known for being contentious and doctrinaire, Francis — an Argentine who in March became the first pope from Latin America — has prompted a level of excitement in the region for his humble style, coupled with a series of pronouncements and policy moves that are being interpreted as signs of possible change to come in a tradition-bound institution.

Pope Francis blesses the faithful after he delivered the Angelus prayer at the Pontiff's residence of Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, Sunday July 14, 2013. For a day, Pope Francis has abandoned his traditional Sunday greeting at the Vatican, opting for an informal front-door encounter in a hill town outside Rome which hosts the papal summer residence. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

That is especially significant in Brazil, where many people express a need for a more socially active church to address the kind of disaffection that led hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them young and angry because of corruption and shoddy public services, onto the streets in dozens of cities late last month.

People in this country say they have noticed the changes in Rome, how the pope opted to live in a modest apartment and walk among the faithful in St. Peter’s Square. They are well aware that in Buenos Aires he took the bus and the metro, cooked his own meals and visited the “misery villages” — the tough slums on the city’s outskirts.

Latin Americans also have heard the pope candidly criticizing avarice and materialism.

The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told the Sao Paulo newspaper O Estado on Friday that the pope might say more during his seven-day stay in Brazil for World Youth Day, which is expected to attract
1 million people to the Rio area.

“It will be a very strong message of responsibility leading toward a society that is just, is human and has solidarity, and with values for the future, leaving behind the oppression of the greedy,” Lombardi told the paper.

Declining influence

Joseph Palacios, a former Jesuit and an expert on the interface between religion and politics in Latin America, said this does not mean that Francis is an exponent of liberation theology, which Boff championed in the 1980s and which in its early stages mixed Marxism with traditional church teachings.

But Palacios said Francis, as a cardinal in Argentina, demonstrated a deep interest in poverty and class issues while looking the other way when Argentine priests became more socially active.

Palacios also said that being Latin American, the pope understands that a “heady, intellectual” message does not resonate among people who want a more direct, even folksy messenger.

“Latin Americans have an experiential faith — they live the faith in their families and culture,” Palacios said. “Pope Francis speaks from the heart. He speaks from experience.”

The pope arrives in a country riven by spiritual change — a challenge to the Vatican, but also one with great opportunities for the church.

This is among the most Catholic of countries, with 123 million of its people, or 65 percent of Brazilians, identifying themselves as Catholic, according to the country’s 2010 census. But in 1960, 93 percent said they were Catholic. In recent years, many have flocked to evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Millions more in a heavily urban, consumer-driven society have come to call themselves secular.

“A big majority here are Catholic, or so they say, but the majority of those don’t really go to church,” said Jessica Valera, 22, a third-year psychology student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who considers herself an active Catholic. “So people go to the evangelicals, or they find something else. Or they stop going to church.”

The challenges that the church faces are found in families like that of Felisberto Antonio Leo, 57, a businessman who remains true to the Catholic faith. Of his three children, two have little to do with the church.

“The Catholic Church is a church for people who are older,” said Leo, scrawling out his thoughts about the church on paper at an elegant bookstore in this city’s Ipanema neighborhood. “Young people have absolutely no interest.”

‘Fine with simplicity’

The Vatican appears to be trying hard both to highlight the no-frills nature of the new papacy and to underscore the pontiff’s message during difficult economic times.

At the church residence where he will stay here in Rio, the pope will have a spartan room with only a nondescript cross on the wall. He will sleep in a single bed. His meals will not be elaborate, said Irma Terezinha Fernandes, who is overseeing the kitchen.

“It’s Brazilian food, rice, beans, a churrasco,” she said, referring to Brazilian-style barbecued beef. With a light giggle, she said, “He’s the same as before he became pope. He’s fine with simplicity.”

The pontiff’s style, as well as his candid words, has caught the attention of Catholics such as Sandra Passos, 47, a lawyer.

Stopping to talk before praying at Rio’s St. Sebastian Cathedral, Passos said she doesn’t expect a revolution. But she does foresee the kind of changes she and other Brazilians have long wanted.

“He’ll do more on the social, the needed social reforms,” Passos said. “I think he will make big modifications — not so much ostentation in the church, no big and grandiose celebrations. He is about simple words and touching the poor.”