Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will the Pope’s Trip Have Lasting Effects?

Tania Rego / Agência Brasil / CC BY 3.0 BR

Q: Last month, Pope Francis visited Brazil for a week of World Youth Day activities. The visit marked his first foreign trip as leader of the Roman Catholic church. Standing next to the pontiff, President Dilma Rousseff called for cooperation with the church to combat poverty and hunger. Why did Francis choose Brazil for his first foreign trip as pope? Was the trip a success, and for whom? Will the visit have any lasting consequences for Brazilian society, or the church’s role in that country?

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Rock star, triumphant, a Vatican Spring. That’s how the headlines trumpeted new Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil. His first overseas trip was stunningly successful. The crowds were enormous and enthusiastic. Press attention was greater than any papal visit since John Paul II traveled to Cuba in 1998. Brazil was a perfect starting point. Boasting the world’s largest Catholic population, it has been losing adherents at a record pace—from 90 percent of Brazilians in 1980 to some 60 percent today. Brazil has accomplished a great deal in recent years. Its politics are democratic and its macro-economy well managed. Shameful levels of poverty, inequality and racial discrimination remain, but progress is visible on each front. Brazilians are searching for fresh vision and coherent leadership (both political and spiritual). Three months of mass protests against waste, corruption and shoddy public services made that clear. The Brazil visit lifted Pope Francis’ stature, highlighted his compassion and showcased his formidable communication skills. It will also bolster his credibility and authority within the Vatican. He has begun to build a new face for the church. Still, Brazil’s lapsed Catholics are unlikely to return. The competition is stiff. Passionate evangelical churches have closely bonded with ordinary people. Changing Brazilian Catholicism will take years. The pope may have more impact on Brazil than on its church. Political leaders surely took note of the extraordinary support for his message of inclusiveness and equality. The papal visit revealed political (not just ethical) reasons for the government to beef up its investments in these goals. With her approval rating plummeting in recent months, President Rousseff needs a political boost. Overshadowed and sidelined by the pope, she did not benefit much from his visit. However, she should not ignore his political agenda and style as she prepares for next year’s presidential election.”

A: Timothy Scully, professor of political science and director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame: “Pope Francis is intensely aware that, in order to remain relevant in a rapidly globalizing world, the church must offer a compelling Christian witness to the key issues that confront contemporary society. These are issues such as poverty, the environment and social justice. Where better to offer such a witness than in Brazil, the most populous Catholic country in the world, a country itself riven by social injustices, in a region, Latin America, with 42 percent of the world’s Catholics. The fact that Francis chose World Youth Day to make his first international appearance is also telling: This pope possesses a strong instinct that the work of the New Evangelization must begin with the young, who are still in their personal formative stages. The trip was unquestionably a success for the pope. Measures of the success of the trip include the overwhelmingly positive reception of the pope’s personal witness by the millions of young who thronged him, the extremely positive coverage by the world press, which conveyed the significance of the events and the salience of the message that he delivered, repeatedly, to different audiences throughout the week. This visit was consequential. Copacabana became a sanctuary, and this pastor’s parish has become the world.”

A: Jacqueline Pitanguy, executive director of Citizenship, Study, Research, Information and Action (CEPIA) in Brazil and a member of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Brazil is always on the route of the popes because it is the largest Catholic country in the world, and because in recent decades, the number of Catholics has been decreasing sharply as evangelical churches have grown in number and power. A papal visit for World Youth Day was already on the Vatican’s agenda and would have been made by Pope Benedict XVI had he not resigned. The fact that a Latin American was elected to the highest position of the Catholic Church for the first time made his visit to Brazil special and timely. The great surprise for the 3.5 million pilgrims who attended the religious ceremonies, and for the Brazilian population at large, was the figure of Francis, a powerful leader who exudes sympathy, commitment to the poor, vulnerability, simplicity, transparency and has enormous communication skills. Keeping himself away from political alignments, including in relation to President Dilma’s discourse on poverty and her suggestion of cooperation with the church, the pope firmly stated the church’s commitment to the struggle against poverty and corruption, including in the Vatican. An important statement of the pope, particularly as religion becomes more and more a conservative political force in Brazil affecting laws and public policies, was his assertion that the state should be secular to allow for religious freedom. His words that homosexuals should be respected and not persecuted also had a favorable impact in the LGBT community, which struggles against homophobic law projects currently being presented by religious parliamentarians. The pope also made no public statements on abortion, and his silence on that subject was positive for the country’s religious and secular pro-life groups. I don’t know if the visit will have long-lasting influences in terms of increasing the number of Catholics or decreasing conservative forces, but it will probably bring the experience of Catholicism closer to the liberation theology that characterized the Latin American Catholic Church before Pope John Paul II and the conservative change brought by the Vatican.”