Greater importance for the Latin American Church. Regardless of record-breaking attendance, that the first Latin American pope made his maiden international trip to Brazil, home to the largest, but rapidly declining Catholic population on earth, is in itself of monumental significance. The precipitous decline in Catholic membership started in the 1950s under the watch of Pope John XXIII; it's only now, six decades later, that the Vatican has decided to implement proactive measures to resurrect the faith in a region that is home to almost half the world's Catholics.
Spoke the language of the people. On the linguistic front, Francis couldn't have put in a better performance, speaking exclusively his native Spanish and Portuguese (even if his attempt at Brazil's language often sounded more like Portanhol (a mix of Spanish and Portuguese) because he couldn't pronounce the many nasalized vowels). I've criticized him before for not speaking more Spanish in Rome, so I hope he's returned to the Vatican with greater appreciation for speaking his native tongue, which happens to be the most spoken language among the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Man of the people. In Rio he kicked his penchant for simplicity, humility and accessibility into high gear. The security snafu in which the pope's little Fiat was overwhelmed by zealous pilgrims was caused in part because of his insistence on keeping the window rolled down so he could extend his arm to those seeking his blessing. Countless babies kissed, traipses through a crime-ridden favela and impromptu photo ops with the adoring faithful only added to the pontiff's reputation for being a charismatic man of the people
Solidarity with Brazilian protestors. On Brazilian soil, Francis reaffirmed his support for the millions of protestors who had recently taken to the streets demanding better government services and the expulsion of corrupt politicians. Even though he was no fan of Liberation Theology in Argentina, he has to large extent adopted its discourse in his frequent denunciations of dog-eat-dog capitalism, the type of free market policies that have held sway in most of Latin America since at the least the 1980s.
Laser focus on evangelization. The most compelling reason for the papal visit was to launch a New Evangelization campaign in Brazil and the rest of Latin America. Not only was "Go and make disciples of all nations," the theme of World Youth Day, but also it was both the first and last phrase he pronounced at the farewell mass on stunningly beautiful Copacabana beach. Francis, perhaps somewhat unfairly, took Brazilian bishops to task in his meeting with them for not doing more to stop the hemorrhaging of members to Pentecostalism
Focus on individual affliction. Francis' concern with social justice in and of itself will not recruit more members to the church. The great majority of Latin Americans who have left the Church over the past century for Pentecostalism have done so because this charismatic type of Protestantism has preached a Jesus and Holy Spirit who cures believers of their poverty-related afflictions, such as illness, alcoholism and even unemployment. The pope's visit to a drug rehab center, a prison, and embrace of apparently all the pilgrims in wheelchairs in attendance gave strong evidence that he has learned from his much more savvy missionary brethren, the Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses (the latter of which were even evangelizing World Youth Day pilgrims on the streets of Copacabana).
Energetic urgency. Vatican watcher John Allen resurrected a bit passé but apt moniker for Francis -- the Energizer bunny. As a mere observer of his visit I feel like my batteries were completely depleted during Francis' frenzied pace of nonstop engagements. One would imagine that at age 76 and with just one lung, the pope feels a keen sense of urgency in realizing his mission. Only at the closing mass did he look and sound fatigued, but the breakneck pace and high energy engagement of the Argentine pontiff made him even more appealing to the young pilgrims used to running on high octane.
Che Guevara of the Church. Recalling his revolutionary compatriot, Che Guevara, the Argentine pontiff on several occasions called for a revolution in the Church. He called on Latin American bishops to get out of their comfortable parish offices and remake a Church that speaks the language of the people and doesn't get lost in arcane intellectualism, a swipe at his papal predecessor.
Nod to Catholic Charismatics. In my Huffington Post piece, penned on the eve of Francis' departure for Brazil, I had identified the synthesis of his option for the poor with a Latin American preference for the Spirit as his major challenge for achieving the goal of a massive evangelization campaign in Latin America. Charismatics constitute the majority of practicing Catholics in Brazil, Guatemala and several other Latin American countries. In terms of both substance and style Francis achieved a remarkable reconciliation of what in the regional context tend to be competing tendencies.
- Spectacular turnout. With an estimated 3 million pilgrims occupying every inch of Copacabana beach for the reenactment of the Stations of the Cross and farewell mass, this World Youth Day smashed previous attendance records and goes down in the record books as one of the best attended papal events ever. The charismatic pope even attracted a better turnout than Mick Jagger's free concert on Copacabana beach!
Substantively, his focus on poverty-related affliction was most proximately adopted from the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which since its inception in the U.S. has had such concerns at the center of its practice and evangelization efforts. Stylistically, Charismatic influence was even more obvious at both the Vegas type reenactment of the Stations of the Cross and the farewell mass in which well-known Brazilian Charismatic priests belted out highly emotional songs of praise. It was quite a sight a few minutes before the mass began to see bishops and priests dancing and waving their hands to the spirited rhythms.
Of course, only time will tell if Francis is able to revitalize the Church in Latin America, but for these ten reasons he has a fighting chance.
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