5. São Paulo, July 25

Pope's car surroundedMore like an elderly pop star (pope star?) than the spiritual head of the Catholic church, the Pope has wowed Brazilians: vast crowds have endured not only the rain and cold but the disorganisation and incompetence of the authorities to catch a glimpse of the white robed figure with his avuncular smile. In a few days in Rio he has probably kissed more babies than Bento (Pope Benedict) XVI did during his entire reign. He drove the security guards to despair, plunging into the crowds, rolling down the car window to shake hands and refusing to travel in an armoured car or bullet-proof Popemobile.

Will this be enough to roll back the tide and reclaim Catholics from the Pentecostal advance? When the statue of Christ the Redeemer on the top of the Corcovado mountain was unveiled in Rio in 1931, almost 100% of Brazilians were Catholic, now the latest poll shows the number has plunged to only just over 60 %.

Brazilians are still religious, but they are also pragmatic. For rebel theologian Leonardo Boff, who in the 1980s compared the Vatican Curia to the Central Committee of the Communist party in the Soviet Union, “They follow anyone who talks about God. After all, there are many paths leading to God. Basically, the Catholic Church is in charge of baptism, weddings, and funerals; the life beyond the grave is looked after by Spiritualism; and people go to the Afro-Brazilian Macumba cults when it comes to matters of love and luck. Brazil is a huge religious supermarket where everyone chooses his own product”.

Pope Francisco hit the right note in a country swept with demonstrations when he denounced the idols of money, power, success and sex. He showed he was attuned with the protests when he denounced corruption. But what message does he have for the young people who have come to Rio to celebrate World Youth Day about the issues which concern them more personally—contraception, homosexuality, abortion?  They may be fervent Catholics, full of enthusiasm for the new Pope but if they are single, are they all celibate—as they should be if they follow the Church’s teachings? It seems unlikely.

However personally popular Francisco is, how much longer can a group of supposedly celibate, childless old men arrogate to themselves the right to decide what is best not only for Catholics but for the world, campaigning in countless countries to prevent the legalisation of divorce, abortion and same sex marriage? How can an international institution, which claims the prerogatives of a state, and has observer status at the UN, continue to deny women equality of opportunity and the right to be priests, bishops and eventually Pope?

Pope Francisco with DilmaAn embattled president Dilma and other politicians of all parties, on the defensive because of the protests, lost no time in jumping on the Papal bandwagon, appearing with him whenever possible, although this was meant to be a religious, not a state visit. At a welcoming ceremony in Rio, Dilma sought to identify her government’s social policies with the Pope’s priorities. She said “We fight a common enemy, social inequality,” and raised the possibility of an alliance between the Catholic church and the government in the fight against poverty.

Pope Francisco is said to have admitted to being a lifelong Peronista, a supporter of the populist movement which has shaped Argentine politics for the last 60 years. He is good at populist gestures—rejecting the pomp and luxury of the Vatican in favour of simplicity: ordinary black shoes instead of his predecessor’s handmade red ones, a silver rather than a gold cross, an ordinary hatchback car instead of a limousine.

But will the new emphasis on the social be enough to revitalise the church here and elsewhere? In Brazil the Roman Catholic church is going through an institutional crisis. Measured by the number of Catholics, Brazil should have 100,000 priests, but there are only 17,000. Evangelicals and the pentecostals have taken over the institutional space vacated by the Catholic Church. Francisco says they must fight the pentecostals with their own weapons – evangelization. But how far will he go to undo the Vatican power structure and return the church to its origins?

Leonardo Boff says “Basically we shouldn’t need a pope. The church could build a network of religious communities which communicate with each other — as it did when it was founded.”

The faithful in RioThis is the people’s church proposed by liberation theology. Pope Francisco maybe a populist pope, he may try to reform the Roman Curia, but will he bring the Catholic Church into the modern world on moral issues, or will the divide between reality and doctrine remain? His predecessor John Paul II became immensely popular when he came to Brazil in 1980 because the country was still in the grip of a military dictatorship and he spoke out about human rights and met workers’ leaders, including Lula. But in the Vatican he worked tirelessly to undermine the bishops who supported a more progressive church.

Francisco, too, will leave Brazil on a wave of popularity, because he charmed the crowds and spoke out against corruption and social inequality. But will the church really change?

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil