Pope Francis—the first Latin American to head the Catholic Church—arrived in Brazil on Monday to celebrate World Youth Day, a week-long international gathering of young Catholics initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985. While millions of Catholics have traveled to Rio de Janeiro to greet the Pope, he was also met on Monday night by a group of 1,500 demonstrators outside of Rio’s Guanabara Palace, where Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and hundreds of dignitaries greeted the Pope in the official welcome ceremony.
Brazil is still shaken by social unrest that saw hundreds of thousands of protesters demand an end to corruption and better public services last month, and many demonstrators are now criticizing the estimated $53 million that will be spent on security during the Pope’s visit. In anticipation of more protests this week, the Defense Ministry boosted the number of army, air force and navy personnel and rolled out what state officials called “the biggest police operation in (Rio de Janeiro’s) history.” Even so, security might be problematic as the Pope plans to ride through the center of the city in an open-air vehicle, instead of the traditional bulletproof popemobile.
Pope Francis’ visit also comes at a delicate time for the Catholic Church in Brazil. Though Brazil is home to the world’s largest Catholic community—an estimated 123 million—Catholicism has been challenged by the country’s surging Evangelical population in the past three decades. Today, about 65 percent of the total population—compared with 92 percent in 1970—identifies as Catholic. In contrast, the number of evangelicals has risen from 5 percent of the population in 1970 to 22 percent in 2010. Rio de Janeiro is the country’s least Catholic state, with 45 percent of the population identifying as Catholic, according to the newspaper O Globo.
The Pope's weeklong visit has drawn over one million young Catholics to Rio de Janeiro. The pontiff will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida— Brazil’s top pilgrimage site. He will also tour the Varginha favela in Rio, meet young inmates and hold three public Masses. The theme of the July 23-28 World Youth Day is “Go and make disciples of all nations,” a saying that summarizes the Pope’s mission to reinvigorate Brazil’s Catholic community.
This week’s announcement that Pope Benedict XVI has resigned and will relinquish his official papal duties at the end of the month has brought into relief the important role of the Catholic Church in Latin America, and the important role of Latin America in the Catholic Church. Home to over 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, some Latin Americans are suggesting that the next Pope to be elected should—for the first time in history—come from outside Europe and, specifically, that he should come from Latin America.
Whatever the merits arguing in favor of a geographic approach to Church leadership, the discussion highlights an important point: increasingly, the vibrancy of the Catholic Church is coming not from its traditional base in Europe and North America, but from developing regions of the world.
Much as a shift in broader global governance is underway, with power diversifying from north to south, this pattern is being repeated in the religious sphere as well—not just in the Catholic Church, but even more so in Protestant evangelical churches.
For years, the growing influence of evangelicals across Latin America has been noted by observers. Adherents have multiplied dramatically, building on a base established primarily but not exclusively from North American missionaries working within the region. But the pattern of evangelization is rapidly changing. In fact, according to Dr. Rodolfo Girón, for many years a pioneer in Latin American missions, the mentality of Latin American evangelical churches is changing from being receivers of missionaries to being senders of missionaries.