Pope Benedict XVI tolls a huge outdoor mass this morning before he winds up a five-day visit to Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country. Later today, when he opens a conference of Latin American and Caribbean bishops, the pope is expected to outline strategies for the church to stem recent losses to Pentecostalism there.

From Aparecida, Brazil, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE McCARTHY: Saturday was day four of the pope's visit to Brazil. And it brought the Holy Father face to face with one of Latin America's worst scourges: drugs.

Young victims of drug and alcohol abuse performed a modern dance with the 80-year-old pope under a thatched-roof stage of a rural rehabilitation center. Earlier, they had told the pope wrenching stories of their addiction. Many had been lured into dependency by poverty and a sense of hopelessness. In response, the pope reassured the young, recovering substance abusers that their ordeal would help others.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: You are the ambassadors of hope, he said to applause. Then, delivered an unusually stinging rebuke to drug traffickers.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: Look at the horror you are provoking in the multitudes of youth; God will demand satisfaction. Human dignity cannot be trampled upon like this, the pope said. Benedict's close proximity to the pain of this youth was exactly what he had been pressing his bishops to do this past week - get closer to the individuals in the community and renovate the church's evangelism, put another way, regain lost ground by beating the evangelist churches at their own game.

In Latin America, the Pentecostals have outflanked the Catholic Church. In just 25 years, the numbers of Brazilians identifying themselves as Catholics has gone from nearly 90 percent in 1980 to 64 percent today.

(Soundbite of song, "Dust in the Wind")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Dust in the wind…

McCARTHY: Listening to people of Sao Paolo this past week provided a bit of insight into the exodus. As a sidewalk musician entertains lunch goers, 26-year-old financial analyst Tatiana Bietta(ph) tells me she quit the Catholic Church three years ago when she discovered the Evangelicals were better at building a sense of community.

Ms. TATIANA BIETTA (Financial Analyst): (Through translator) Every time you go into the Evangelical Church, everyone says hello and you get to know everyone in your congregation, and (unintelligible) the song. I'm not saying that there aren't any in the Catholic Church, but the ones in the Evangelical Church bring you in. You have the feeling you are being brought in. The biggest difference is that in the Evangelical Church, you feel the live presence of God.

McCARTHY: A stop in a bookstore a half a mile off the road turns up another convert. This time, he's Elvaton Gett(ph), the store manager.

You have goose bumps right now.

Mr. ELVATON GETT (Bookstore manager): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: You have goose bumps on you. Why?

Mr. GETT: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: He has such a deep faith, he says, simply talking about God gives him a physical reaction.

Mr. GETT: (Through translator) It's more or less love at first sight. It's that type of feeling. When you go into the church, you feel welcome, that God is present. I'm not saying Evangelical Church is better. It is, after all, one God for everyone.

McCARTHY: I asked is there anything that the Catholic Church could do to persuade him to come back.

Mr. GETT: (Through translator) No. There is nothing else I can do, because I don't need anything else. I already have God in my heart.

McCARTHY: Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School says that the pope and the Catholic Church must now recognize that Brazil is a religiously pluralistic society.

Professor HARVEY COX (Hollis Professor of Divinity, Harvard): It's not something they can control. They can't really stop this hemorrhage, so - and they pushed the Brazilian Church, and maybe indeed Rome, into a much more ecumenical expression of what the church around the world - and especially, in this case, in Brazil - ought to be doing.

McCARTHY: But Pope Benedict's attitudes on things ecumenical would seem to make that unlikely. He told Brazil's bishops last week, the only church of Christ is the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, with the pope in Aparecida, Brazil.

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