What the Pope’s Trip to Brazil means for World Catholics
What the Pope’s Trip to Brazil means for World Catholics

In his first overseas trip as the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis sought to repair the tarnished image of the Catholic Church at a time when it is increasingly seen as being out of touch. Francis, who is originally from Argentina and is the first pope from the Americas, has been lauded for his humility and progressive views on social issues. The trip has been viewed as a success because of his notable comments on homosexuality in the priesthood. “If a person is gay, seeks God, and has good will, who am I to judge? They should not be marginalized,” he was quoted as saying to a reporter (Wilkinson, 2013). The church previously labeled homosexuality a “disorder” and, under Pope Benedict XVI, any gay priests were explicitly banned from the priesthood, stating that the two were “incompatible” (Dinmore, 2013). In recent years anti-gay rhetoric has strained the church’s relationship with the public at a time when gays are being more accepted in society, further the church has been plagued by scandals such as child molestation and financial excess.

The renewed focus on social justice is popular among young adults who feel the church needs to be more inclusive, with many extolling Francis’s virtues through social media. The Pope’s Twitter feed is also popular with thousands of new followers and retweets from it daily (Mosbergen, 2013). For example, in Brazil, he won praise online for entering one of the most violent and poor favelas or slums rather than remaining secluded from the public (Scamparini, 2013).

His rejection of excess spending and decorum in the Vatican was also reiterated in his trip when he spoke about his desire to reform the Vatican bank. In recent months, the bank faced criticism over money laundering charges. Francis plans to make the bank it into an “ethical bank,” an “assistance fund,” or may just close it altogether (Dinmore, 2013). By visiting the poor and expanding his ministry, as well as showing more acceptance of homosexuality, Pope Francis is hoping to both rebuild the image of the Catholic Church and increase its presence worldwide.

The Church suffers in Latin America

Brazil, which has 123 million Catholics (the largest concentration worldwide), is an important place for Pope Francis to begin his ministry (Brown, 2013). The Church acknowledges that the number of Catholics among today’s youth is falling and, even in Brazil, the number has fallen recently, with more people flocking to Pentecostal ministries. This problem is especially important to Pope Francis as Latin America is traditionally a strong supporter of the Church. To reverse this downward trend, the Pope renewed the focus on a poor and populous south, rather than on a strong European ministry, as it has been in the past (Brown, 2013).

On the last day of his visit to Brazil more than three million people gathered on Copacabana beach to hear him celebrate mass, showing the influence the Church still commands in the impoverished region (Brooks, 2013). According to recent reports, the Church is being crippled by a lack of young men joining the priesthood. While the number of Catholics doubled worldwide between 1970 and 2008, the number of priests declined from 42,839 to 38,964 between 2005 and 2012. Meanwhile the number of Catholics increased from 64.8 million to 66.3 in the same period (CARA, 2012). Francis’ comments on homosexuality may be an attempt to revitalize the youth and to inspire them to join the clergy at a time when it is desperately needed.

Attempts at Reform could Face Opposition

While Pope Francis offered hope to progressive Catholics that he may seek change on issues such as homosexuality in the Church and the role of women, he also made it clear that other things would remain the same; such as the Church’s teaching on abortion, contraception, and priestly celibacy (Brooks, 2013). The Pope also addressed the accessibility of the church saying that it had to “end its overly intellectual and self-referential manner of communicating” (Brooks, 2013). While he is already more popular than his predecessor, the ability of the papacy to translate this into renewed church membership depends upon reforms.

Francis has already called the traditionalist Catholic groups out of touch with the mission of the church in the 21st century; however, he faces strong obstacles to any attempted reforms from these same groups (Winfield, 2013). He also faces challenges from the Roman curia and the central bureaucracy of the Vatican. When pressed if he had seen open opposition yet, however, Francis only stated, “If there is resistance I have not seen it yet”(Davies, 2013). Many laypeople who were content under Benedict as a result of his conservative views feel threatened by Francis’ rhetoric and could become vocal against any reforms.


The disconnect between the clergy and parishioners as evidenced in the recent poll, highlights the problems that Pope Francis must deal with in restoring the image of the church in today’s society. Once strong centers of Catholic faith, countries such as Brazil, are being drawn away from the church into more progressive ministries. Without change the Catholic Church may lose traction among a more liberal youth who choose to remain secular or flock to more flexible faiths. The Pope’s strategy for his papacy could be summed up in his words during the final mass on Copacabana beach, “Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent” (Wilkinson & Bevins, 2013).

The Pope also reached out to young Catholics across the world as a means of rousing the Church from what he sees as complacency. Many Catholics hope that Pope Francis will be more like his previous predecessor Pope John Paul II rather than Pope Benedict XVI.  Pope John Paul II is viewed as a leader who restored the Church at a crucial time. With the primary concern of many of today’s youth being the stagnant world economy and high unemployment, Pope Francis’ regard for the poor and rejection of the usual riches afforded to his office have already made him a popular figure less than a year into his papacy.

Works Cited

Brooks, B. (2013, July 31). Pope Francis challenges his church: Get moving. The Christian  Science Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Latest-News-Wires/2013/0731/Pope-Francis-challenges-his-church-Get-moving

Brown, A. (2013, July 23). Can Pope Francis’s visit reinvigorate Brazil’s Catholics?. The  Guardian. Retrieved from  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2013/jul/23/pope-francis-visit-brazil-catholics

CARA. (2012). Frequently requested church statistics. Retrieved from  http://cara.georgetown.edu/CARAServices/requestedchurchstats.html

Davies, L. (2013, July 29). Pope Francis signals openness towards gay priests. The Guardian.  Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/29/pope-francis-openness-gay-priests

Dinmore, G. (2013, July 29). Pope Francis strikes more conciliatory tone on gay  clergy. Financial Times. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/a11ab832-f845-11e2-92f0-00144feabdc0.html

Goodstein, L. (2013, March 05). U.S. Catholics in poll see a church out of touch. The New York  Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/us/poll-shows-disconnect-between-us-catholics-and-church.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Mosbergen, D. (2013, March 19). Pope Francis on Twitter: @pontifex account blowing up as new  pope asserts social media presence. Huffington Post. Retrieved from  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/19/pope-francis-twitter-pontifex_n_2908874.html

Scamparini, I. (2013, July 27). Pope Francis’ social reform message is exactly what Brazil needs  to hear. The Guardian. Retrieved from  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/27/pope-francis-brazil-message-social-justice-reform

Wilkinson, T. (2013, July 29). Pope Francis says gays should not be judged. Los Angeles Times.  Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/news/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-pope-francis-says-gays-should-not-be-judged-20130729,0,3689944.story

Wilkinson, T., & Bevins, V. (2013, July 28). Pope Francis heads home; Vatican sees Brazil trip  as success. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from  http://www.latimes.com/news/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-ff-pope-francis-leaves-brazil-20130728,0,2965010.story

Winfield, N. (2013, July 31). Pope Francis reforms threaten some Catholics, changes not  welcomed by all. Huffington Post. Retrieved from  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/31/pope-francis-reforms-not-welcomed_n_3683738.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

* Picture of Pope Francis in Brazil: http://www.flickr.com/photos/semilla_luz/9379655942/sizes/z/in/photolist-fhRbVU-fhRcku-7E9cWx-fbUyv8-dBA1Ly-fhRcCw-e33FD5-92dw3U-fm75vH-fmfv8q-fm73Mt-fkMomL-fkwwWr-fkwNmB-fkyBDT-fm1mN8-fm779R-fm1dtq-fkMbx1-fhRmMy-9c1NdV-9c2tbR-9c2t44-9c2t8P-9c2oqg-9c2mJ4-9c5nGN-ff5NAY-ff5TwN-ff5MqJ-ff6cdW-ff6sxj-ff6g2j-ff6aXA-ff6rVq-ff5x7J-feR8Tp-feQGhV-ff6hw9-feRb5k-ff6kmh-feQLf4-feQFTe-ff6qem-feQUQg-feQwqH-ff5XR1-feQPW4-ff5M97-ff5u1C-feQcjH/

* Picture of Pope Francis at Copacabana beach: http://www.flickr.com/photos/leandrociuffo/9371607407/sizes/m/in/photolist-fh8Wo4-fhockQ-8qthXT-8RtMsR-fhAVPV-fh8Su1-fh9Kss-fh8oDj-fgSYbk-fgPSGv-fgTaVX-fh8TsW-fgT9ze-fh8T6Y-fgNMQe-fgTbJx-fgSWD8-fgPXvn-fh8oiw-fgTaLT-fgSXzT-fh9jSN-fh8nhq-fgTbsM-fgQttp-fh8Se3-fgT6Lp-fgPYct-fh8qvY-fh57Sq-fh9JjN-fh5eaU-92dw3U-fgTqNA-fgDxUR-fgTQaQ-fgTvou-fgDPSB-fgTm6S-fhxgYZ-fhRcku-fhRbVU-fgUb4a-fgU95F-fgTufF-fh7wzb-fgRT9t-fh5YN9-fgNvC4-fh7ZW7-fh9z7d/

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