Pope speaks to youth in Brazil

SAO PAULO, Brazil—Carlos Santos, 23, traveled from the central Brazilian city of Governador Valadares to attend Mass Thursday night with Pope Benedict XVI in a massive soccer stadium here. But he readily admitted that he has trouble reconciling church teachings with his more liberal beliefs on contraception and premarital sex.

"This is an impasse for me," Santos said. "I'm trying to be a Catholic despite the church's attitude on these matters."

On the second day of his historic trip to the world's largest Roman Catholic country, Pope Benedict XVI tried to bridge that gap in what church officials acknowledge is an effort to reinvigorate a population that is leaving the church by the millions.

"The church needs you, as young people, to manifest to the world the face of Jesus Christ, visible in the Christian community," the pope declared to the audience in the Paulo Machado de Carvalho Municipal Stadium. "Without this young face, the church would appear disfigured."

Throughout the Mass, the young people roared their support. "Pope Benedict, everybody loves you!" many cried as the pope entered the stadium. They cheered relentlessly during the event.

Reading in Portuguese from a text, Benedict, 80, reached out to many of the church's disaffected. Just one day after denouncing the political movement known as liberation theology during a news conference with Vatican reporters, Benedict called on Catholics to build "a more just and fraternal society."

He praised "initiatives aimed at eliminating certain forms of discrimination existing in Latin American societies—avoiding exclusion, for the sake of mutual enrichment."

He also condemned "the devastation of the environment in the Amazon Basin" and "the high death rate among young people, the threat of violence, the deplorable proliferation of drugs, which strike at the deepest roots of youth today."

Before addressing the crowd, the pope watched soberly as a dozen young Catholics sang and danced to pop music on the massive stage. Such features are common in Pentecostal churches, which have proved to be increasingly popular to Brazilian believers.

How effective the pope will be in his effort to reverse the steady decline of Catholicism in Brazil won't be known for years. The percentage of Brazilians who claim to be Catholics has dropped from 89 percent in 1980 to 64 percent today, according to census and polling data.

A vast majority of Brazilian Catholics disagree with church stands against divorce, contraception and other issues, according to a recent poll by the research firm Datafolha. The study also showed that people ages 16 to 24 made up 44 percent of non-religious Brazilians.

But there was no denying the energy Benedict was generating among the estimated 40,000 people in the stadium and the thousands more who listened in the streets.

The crowd cheered when the pontiff said he was giving the people "the great mission of evangelizing the young men and women who have gone astray in this world like sheep without a shepherd."

And while some people like Santos said they struggled with church teachings, others embraced a church that doesn't shift positions to fit modern attitudes.

"What the church teaches has always been the truth," said 19-year-old Tomas Garcia, who came with a group of 150 Argentine Catholics to attend the Mass. "Some positions that the pope takes may be uncomfortable for people, but the church can't just change its foundations to fit what people want."

Since rising to the pontificate two years ago, Pope Benedict has argued for a return to the church's traditional values and resisted calls for reform.

On Wednesday, while flying to Brazil, he told reporters that Mexican legislators who voted last month to legalize abortion in Mexico City deserved to be excommunicated, which would deny them church sacraments or a role in liturgies.

Church officials also have clashed with the government of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva this week over his support for loosening laws prohibiting abortions in most cases. The pope and Lula da Silva reportedly didn't discuss the topic when they met Thursday.

Asked Wednesday about Brazilian Catholics who disagreed with church teachings, Benedict answered, "I am trying, with the help of my colleagues, to speak to Brazil at this moment, in the hope that many want to hear, and many can be convinced that this is the road to follow."

The biggest point of tension between the pope and Latin American Catholics has centered around liberation theology teachings, which advocate using the church as a means to achieve political change and to fight poverty. The movement was a strong rebuke in Latin America to the military dictatorships that ruled the region during the 1960s and 1970s.

Before becoming pope, Benedict had been a leading critic of the movement in the Vatican. He said Wednesday that liberation theology advocates were "wrong" and that "everybody knows this."

Some, however, said such criticism showed an ideological gap had grown between the Vatican and Latin America over the past decade, especially as the region elected leftist governments that have challenged social policies long backed by the Catholic Church.

Those differences help explain why millions of Latin American Catholics have left the church, said Eureco Borba, executive secretary of an organization representing Brazilian Catholic schools. Although nearly half of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in Latin America, many Catholics, especially younger ones, are joining Pentecostal congregations.

As one sign of that decline among young Catholics, enrollment in primary and secondary Catholic schools in Brazil dropped by 44 percent between 1996 to 2004.

"This European pope needs to understand the unique situation of Latin America," Borba said. "We are not rebels here, and we aren't rebelling against the pope. The church was on our side against the dictatorships of this region and helped prepare the hearts and minds of the people for this moment, which could have only happened in democracy."

To American-born, charismatic priest Edward Dougherty, who helps run a religious television network in southern Brazil, the church's future is safe if its leader continues reaching out and talking to its people.

"What we have to do is spread more good news to the rest of Brazil," Dougherty said. "And that's what we're going to do more of."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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