Pope Draws Crowds On Visit To Brazil

Pope Francis is in Brazil for World Youth Day. His arrival was marked by some security concerns and crowds eager for a view. Brazil is home to one-tenth of the world's Catholics, but evangelical churches are making inroads. The Washington Post's Juan Forero talks to Renee Montagne about the first Latin American pontiff's challenges in South America.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pope Francis is in a small city in the southern part of Brazil today. Aparecida is the home of the patron saint of Brazil, a famous clay statue of the Virgin Mary wearing a stiff, blue veil. Huge crowds are expected as he celebrates Mass there. And later, he'll return to Rio de Janeiro to visit a drug rehabilitation program.

The pope's determination to be close to the people has prompted grave security concerns. His arrival in Brazil two days ago was chaotic, as his car took a wrong turn and was surrounded by throngs of people. The pope rolled down the windows, and the faithful reached in to touch him. Some handed him babies to bless.

Washington Post correspondent Juan Forero joins us now from Rio. Good morning.

JUAN FORERO: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, first off, are authorities taking more precautions to protect the pope now than they did when he arrived there on Monday?

FORERO: Oh, most definitely. There was a lot of concern about what they saw on the streets on Monday. So they did have meetings. The top Vatican officials here met with some senior security officials, and they went over the security detail. And they've decided that Francis will use only the closed car when he's moving along the streets of Rio. He's going to a hospital today, so they don't want the same kind of scene that they had on Monday.

MONTAGNE: Well, this rolling down the window and kissing babies, it offers more evidence that Pope Francis has a very different approach than his predecessor. How are Brazilians responding to that?

FORERO: Well, yeah. People had read about his approach. They had seen him on TV before. But this time, they got to see him in person. They were handing him babies, and people were reaching out to him, and he was touching back. So definitely, they have a different pope. He's quite a populist, and he's very comfortable with the people. And now they're waiting to see what his first message is going to be to them.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, the pope does face challenges for the Catholic Church there in Brazil. What specifically are they?

FORERO: Well, the church had a real lock on people's souls here, so to speak. Fifty years ago, more than 90 percent of Brazilians called themselves Catholics. And now we're talking about 60 percent, perhaps less, according to some polls. And evangelical churches have really taken a big slice of the pie. They're growing fast. They're big. They're powerful. They're influential. They've got a big bloc of congressmen. And so that's what the church faces here.

This is the most important Catholic Church, so to speak, because Brazil is the biggest Catholic country. And so the Vatican really wants to make a stand here and reverse this trend. They're hoping that they can do that with this pope.

MONTAGNE: Pope Francis is also known for his concern for the poor. And Brazil has been rocked as we've been, you know, reporting, by nationwide protests over social injustice and the rapidly rising cost of living. How do those two fit together? How are Brazilians seeing him - as an ally in the fight for equality?

FORERO: Well, they've seen that the pope has spoken out about social issues before. He has mentioned this in Europe, for instance, the way people are suffering there from some of these shattered economies in the south. And so some of the young people here are hoping that he does address some of their concerns. And their concerns deal with issues such as corruption and shoddy services, and things of that nature - you know, the high cost of living and inflation and so forth.

I don't know if the pope is going to get that detailed. But he is somebody who has broached these kinds of subjects in the past in his short papacy. So I think that there are people here who are really watching closely and waiting to see if he is going to say anything about what happened here in Brazil.

MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from Rio, on the visit of Pope Francis there to Brazil, is Washington Post correspondent Juan Forero. Thanks very much.

FORERO: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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