Pope Francis drew a reported three million flag-waving, rosary-toting faithful to Rio’s Copacabana beach for the final evening of World Youth Day, hours after he chastised the Brazilian church for failing to stem the “exodus” of Catholics to evangelical congregations.
Francis headed into the final hours of his first international trip riding a remarkable wave of popularity: by the time his open-sided car reached the stage for the vigil service on Saturday night, the back seat was piled high with football shirts, flags and flowers tossed to him by adoring pilgrims lining the beachfront route.
On the beach, pilgrims staked out their spots on the sand, lounged and snacked, preparing for an all-night party ahead of the final Mass on Sunday. Many of those actually paying attention to the vigil had tears in their eyes, moved by Pope Francis’s call for them to build up their church like his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, was called to do.
“Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup!” Francis said, drawing cheers from the crowd in this football-mad nation.
The vigil capped a busy day for the Pope in which he drove home a message he has emphasised throughout the week in speeches, homilies and off-the-cuff remarks: the need for Catholics, lay and religious, to shake up the status quo, get out of their stuffy sacristies and reach the faithful on the margins of society or risk losing them to rival churches.
In the longest and most important speech of his four-month pontificate, Francis took a direct swipe at the “intellectual” message of the church. He said ordinary Catholics simply do not understand lofty ideas and need to hear simple messagess at the core of the Catholic faith.
“At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people,” he said.
In a speech outlining the kind of church he wants, Francis asked bishops to reflect on why hundreds of thousands of Catholics have left the church for Protestant and Pentecostal congregations that have grown exponentially in Brazil, particularly in its slums or favelas.
According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil dipped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the church’s share of the total population dropping from 74 per cent to 65 per cent. During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals skyrocketed from 26 million to 42 million. Francis offered a breathtakingly blunt list of explanations for the “exodus”.
“Perhaps the church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas,” he said.
Despite Francis’s critical assessment, the Pope’s reception in Rio has shown that he can draw quite a crowd.
Copacabana beach’s four kilometres (2.5 miles) of white sand was overflowing for the final vigil on Saturday night, thanks also to chilly but dry temperatures after days of rain.