Acknowledging the Catholic Church's heavy loss of members in Brazil over recent decades, Pope Francis told the country's bishops that they must learn to understand and sympathize with the reasons for people's disaffection and speak to them in a simpler language of beauty, mystery and love. "We need a church capable of walking at people's side, of doing more than simply listening to them, a church which accompanies them on their journey," he said. The pope made his remarks on July 27 at a meeting with 300 active and retired Brazilian cardinals and bishops. According to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the five-page speech was the longest to date of his young pontificate.
While counseling hope, the pope painted a grim picture of the church's state in Brazil. "We have labored greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures," he said. "We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant."
Although Brazil has more Catholics than any other country, the church's share of the country's population declined from 92 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 2010, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center based on Brazilian census data. Pope Francis pointed to the social and cultural impact of what he called a "relentless process of globalization (and) an often uncontrolled process of urbanization" to help explain the change. Among the effects of these economic transformations, he said, were a "loss of the experience of belonging to any 'nest' whatsoever, subtle but relentless violence (and) the inner fragmentation and breakup of families."
The unhappiness bred by these losses, he said, inspires many to "find an answer in drugs, alcohol and sex, which only become further prisons." Others seek solace in a "poor imitation" of the church and "go off in search of someone who will lead them even further astray." The pope did not specifically refer to Brazil's fast-growing Protestant population, which rose from 15 percent of the national total in 2000 to 22 percent in 2010, but referred to the appeal of the "new religious groups that are sprouting up."
Pope Francis laid much blame on Catholic leaders, who, he said, had lost power to communicate."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. "For ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart." The pope also warned the bishops against assimilating fashionable values of secular culture.
"People today are attracted by things that are faster and faster: rapid Internet connections, speedy cars and planes, instant relationships," he asked. "Is the church herself caught up in the frantic pursuit of efficiency? Dear brothers, let us recover the calm to be able to walk at the same pace as our pilgrims, keeping alongside them, remaining close to them, enabling them to speak of the disappointments present in their hearts and to let us address them."
Among the pope's specific recommendations for the church in Brazil were deeper engagement by bishops in national debates on such "pressing concerns" as "education, health and social harmony"; and more attention to collegiality within the episcopate, downplaying "central bureaucracy" in favor of "local and regional elements."
He gave special attention to the needs of the Amazon basin, in terms of both ecological protection and the training of indigenous clergy to serve indigenous peoples there. "'Pastoral care' is nothing other than the exercise of the church's motherhood," the pope said. "She gives birth, suckles, gives growth, corrects, nourishes and leads by the hand.
"So we need a church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy," he said. "Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of 'wounded' persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love."
Pope Francis also had some final words of encouragement for the young people in Brazil for WYD. He commissioned some 3 million young people to join forces and form what could be called Missionaries Without Borders.
"Where does Jesus send us?" he asked World Youth Day pilgrims on July 28. "There are no borders, no limits: He sends us to everyone."
On the white sand of Copacabana beach -- under partly sunny skies, a relief after days of rain in Rio—Pope Francis celebrated the closing Mass for the July 23-28 celebration of World Youth Day Rio.
Although retired Pope Benedict XVI had chosen the theme for the gathering—"Go and make disciples of all nations"—it was tailor-made for Pope Francis, who continually tells Catholics: "Go out. Go forward. Keep going."
"Sharing the experience of faith, bearing witness to the faith, proclaiming the Gospel: this is a command that the Lord entrusts to the whole church and that includes you," he told his beachfront congregation, which included hundreds of thousands who had spent the night on the sand, sleeping or not.
Long journeys, days of rain and sometimes improvised accommodations did not dampen the spirits of the World Youth Day participants, and Pope Francis told them that if they did not share their experience of God's love with others it would be "like withholding oxygen from a flame that was burning strongly."
Jesus did not tell his disciples to share the Gospel "if you would like to, if you have the time," the pope said. Instead, he commanded them to proclaim the Good News to the world.
Sharing the love and mercy of God and the salvation offered by Christ through the church "is born not from a desire for domination or power, but from the force of love," the pope told the young pilgrims, who were joined on the beach by tens of thousands of Rio residents and other Latin Americans, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Suriname's President Desi Bouterse.
But even more special guests were present: The pope invited a couple and their baby girl, who has anencephaly (missing part of her brain), to come forward during the offertory. Pope Francis met the family on July 27 as he was leaving Rio's St. Sebastian Cathedral and invited them to participate in the Mass. Under Brazil's abortion laws, the couple would have been able to abort the child, but chose not to.
With the father carrying the baby, the parents walked up to the pope wearing shirts with a Portuguese message on the back: "Stop abortion."
In his homily, Pope Francis told the young people that evangelizing requires a personal witness of love for God and love for others, especially the weak, the poor and the defenseless. When the psalm says "Sing a new song to the Lord," he said, it is not talking about a certain set of lyrics or a specific melody, rather "it is allowing our life to be identified with that of Jesus; it is sharing his sentiments, his thoughts (and) his actions."
"The life of Jesus is a life for others," the pope said. "It is a life of service."
The pope did not mince words with his young audience, telling them: "Evangelizing means bearing personal witness to the love of God, it is overcoming our selfishness, it is serving by bending down to wash the feet of our brethren, as Jesus did." Pope Francis said he knows how daunting it can be to recognize that each Christian bears personal responsibility for sharing the Gospel with his or her actions and words, but Jesus told the first disciples and tells disciples today, "Be not afraid."
"Jesus does not leave us alone; he never leaves you alone," the pope said.
And the church does not leave any of its members, or even small groups, to go it alone, he said. "Jesus did not say: 'One of you go,' but 'All of you go.' We are sent together."
"Be creative. Be audacious," he said. "Do not be afraid."
Pope Francis thanked the hundreds of bishops and thousands of priests who accompanied their young pilgrims to Rio, but told them the pilgrimage was just one step on the young people's journey of faith. "Continue to accompany them with generosity and joy, help them to become actively engaged in the church; never let them feel alone," he said.
He gave the younger generation a final instruction, "As you return to your homes, do not be afraid to be generous with Christ, to bear witness to his Gospel." It can change the world, he said. "Bringing the Gospel is bringing God's power to pluck up and break down evil and violence, to destroy and overthrow the barriers of selfishness, intolerance and hatred."