Pope Francis heads to less Catholic, more restive Brazil
By Paulo Prada and Esteban Israel
RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Five months after becoming the first non-European pontiff in 13 centuries, Pope Francis makes his debut trip abroad next week by returning to Latin America for a gathering of young faithful in Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country.
Francis, an Argentine, confirmed shortly after he assumed the papacy that he would head to his home region for World Youth Day, a weeklong visit beginning on Monday.
The biennial event, expected to draw more than a million visitors to Rio de Janeiro and nearby sites, is part of the Church's effort to energize Catholics at a time when inroads by rival faiths and secularism continue to thin its flock.
It also comes at a time when youth in Brazil, galvanized by a series of mass protests that erupted across the country last month, have grown increasingly vocal about their discontent with the status quo in Latin America's biggest country.
Francis' efforts to put a simpler stamp on the papacy and his origins in the ranks of the region's priests have raised hopes for many of the faithful in Brazil.
So has his stated intent to root out the child sexual abuse scandal that has rattled the Church and to place more emphasis on pastoral work - day-to-day ministry, as opposed to the doctrinaire focus favored by Benedict, his predecessor.
"This new pope is more simple," said Amanda Martins, a 21-year-old Catholic attending mass near São Paulo this month. "Maybe his visit can strengthen the Church."