Pope Francis criticizes Brazil’s church for ‘exodus’ of followers

Pope Francis blesses a child from his popemobile as he arrives for a vigil on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach.
(Jorge Saenz / Associated Press)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Pope Francis on Saturday issued what the Vatican said was one of the most important speeches of his papacy, taking to task the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil for hemorrhaging droves of followers to other faiths or to apathy.

Speaking in frank terms to bishops from around the country, Francis laid blame for the “exodus” on a long list of failings by the church and leaders sometimes caught up by intellectualism or overly rigid rules — a church “too distant … too cold.”

“Are we still a church capable of warming hearts?” the pope said. “We need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them,” he said.


The Catholic Church in Brazil has lost several million followers, especially to Protestant evangelical churches that provide services in jails and slums, known as favelas, and often attract new followers with folksy promises of prosperity and other benefits.

The pope’s speech over lunch repeated a theme he addressed earlier in the day, and several times during his week in Brazil: Priests and Catholic leaders must “shake up” their institutions and “get out into the streets” to build the church.

“It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people,” he said. “Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They too are invited to the table of the Lord.”

Earlier Saturday, the pope seemed to endorse the message of Brazilian demonstrators who have filled the streets here in recent weeks, urging government leaders to work to redress severe social inequities. But he also told young protesters to steer away from violence and toward “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”

“The outcry, the call for justice, continues to be heard even today,” the pope told a gathering of senior Brazilian officials in the ornate Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro.

Leadership and responsibility mean finding “the way to go to the heart of the evils of a society and to overcome them, also with the boldness of courageous and free actions,” Francis said.

His message to members of Brazil’s elite leadership repeated themes of social justice and of reaching out to the poor, which have been the hallmark of his weeklong pilgrimage to the world’s largest Roman Catholic country.

But, he suggested, sympathy for their causes did not give demonstrators carte blanche. On several occasions, police have used tear gas to break up demonstrations that did not target the pope specifically but did distract from his appearances.

“Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option, that of dialogue,” the pope said. “Dialogue between generations, dialogue with the people, the capacity to give and receive, while remaining open to the truth. A country grows when constructive dialogue occurs.”

He chastised the “interplay of vested interests” that hold back democracy, an allusion to the old-style, deeply entrenched economic powers that continue to dominate Brazil, and much of Latin America, sometimes from behind the scenes.

“When leaders in various fields ask me for advice, my response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” he said.

The pope was beaming as he left the theater, surrounded by young girls who gave him flowers and an indigenous tribesman who offered him his feathered headdress, which Francis briefly donned, mugging for the cameras.

The tribesman and others who accompanied him said they were part of a group caught in a long struggle with ranchers over protecting their land from illegal timbering.

Francis gave another boost to disaffected young people during Friday night’s Stations of the Cross, the symbolic reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ, held on Rio’s wild Copacabana beach. The show was part Las Vegas, part Catholic avant-garde.

He said Jesus’ journey to his death on the cross showed his determination to assume the burdens and suffering of victims of violence, hunger and persecution based on skin color.

“Jesus is united with so many young people who have lost faith in political institutions, because they see in them only selfishness and corruption,” the pope said. “He unites himself with those young people who have lost faith in the church, or even in God, because of the counter-witness of Christians and ministers of the Gospel.”

Some analysts interpreted the last as a reference to the victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Francis, who had been speaking primarily in Portuguese in public appearances since arriving in Rio de Janeiro, spoke more Spanish on Saturday. He said it was to better express what was in his heart, but it could also reflect weariness in what has been an inordinately grueling schedule for the 76-year-old pontiff, the first from the Americas.