APARECIDA, Brazil — The church is struggling in Latin America to keep Catholics from straying to evangelical and Pentecostal churches that often promise help in finding material wealth, an alluring attraction in a poverty-wracked continent. Francis' top priority as pope has been to reach out to the world's poor and inspire Catholic leaders to go to slums and other peripheries to preach.
It was no coincidence, then, that the first major event of his first foreign trip as pope was a Mass in Aparecida. The shrine, which draws 11 million pilgrims a year, hosted a critical 2007 meeting of Latin American bishops who, under the guidance of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, drafted a mission statement on how to reinvigorate the faith on the continent.
"I've seen people in my own congregation leave because the evangelicals offer them something new and exciting, and the Catholic Church was seen as kind of old and stuffy," Marcia Cecilia de Souza, owner of a private school in the southern state of Santa Catarina, said as she searched for newspaper to stuff into her soaked leather boots. "Francis is such an inspiration, so humble and giving, I think he's going to bring people back into the fold."
Unlike the scenes of chaos that greeted Francis upon his Monday arrival in Rio, when a mob of faithful swarmed his motorcade from the airport, the security situation in Aparecida was far more controlled. Chest-high barriers kept people far from his car. Soldiers in camouflage, emergency crews in raincoats and other uniformed security forces stood guard along his route while his bodyguards walked along the side of his vehicle.
Not all were pleased with the increased security.
"They put up a Berlin Wall between us and the pope and we couldn't get anywhere near him. You could tell he wanted to get close to us, but the police really insisted on this separation," said Joao Franklin, from Minas Gerais state. "I felt really excluded by all these barriers and don't see the need for them."