Despite rapturous reception, pope faces challenges in Latin America

Fri Jul 26, 2013 6:50pm EDT
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By Anthony Boadle and Philip Pullella

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilians have given Pope Francis a superstar's welcome on his first return to his home continent but the big question is whether the trip can help stop the hemorrhaging of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

The first Latin American pope is clearly relishing the enthusiasm at a time when the Church, which once was an unrivalled religious bastion on the continent, is grappling to hold onto faithful.

On Friday he took on the role of a simple priest and heard confessions of young people in Rio de Janeiro for an international Catholic jamboree. Later, he visited the archbishop's residence, where he again showed his personal touch by lunching with youth and meeting juvenile inmates.

Up to 1 million people turned out to see him at Rio's famed Copacabana beach Thursday and even more were expected to see him on Friday night.

But the big turnouts cannot hide the fact that many Catholics in Latin America and beyond are abandoning the Church because of secularism, other faiths and repulsion from the sex and financial scandals that have roiled the Vatican in recent years.

Can Francis, the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years, use the powers of charm, humility and communication that have made him an instant star since his election in March to turn the tide?

"The amount of influence any single pope has on long-term historical trends is limited," said John Allen, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, a prominent U.S. publication, and author of several books on the Vatican.

"Even though it's the pope we're talking about, we probably shouldn't expect miracles."   Continued...

Pope Francis attends a Via Crucis at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, July 26, 2013. Pope Francis on Thursday issued the first social manifesto of his young pontificate, telling slum dwellers in Brazil that the world's rich must do much more to wipe out vast inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino