Pope gets mixed reviews in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—With Pope Benedict XVI back in Rome after a five-day visit to the world's largest Roman Catholic country, Brazilians debated whether his whirlwind tour would make a lasting impact on a region that's pulling away from church influence.

Newspapers here pointed out that fewer people than expected turned out for the 80-year-old pontiff's appearances in the city of Sao Paulo and the shrine town of Aparecida.

Millions of Brazilian Pentecostals also largely ignored the visit while practicing the kind of music-filled, personalized religion that has emerged as a major threat to Catholic dominance here, said Luiz Venturini, a pastor at the Pentecostal Nova Vida church.

"The pope is losing people here, and that won't change," Venturini said. "The Roman Catholic Church is still the majority in Brazil, because we were colonized by them. But our churches are getting big numbers by spreading the true word of God."

Catholic leaders said the hundreds of thousands of people who filled airfields and soccer stadiums to see the pope proved that the visit had reinvigorated the church. Surveys show Catholic numbers are falling all around Latin America, with the most dramatic decline in Brazil.

"People shouted and sang, and they saw the satisfaction this brought to the pope," said the Rev. Gilson Maia, who coordinates Catholic ministries around Latin America and the Caribbean. "We all feel there's a new impulse now, a new course for the church, and there's a new strength."

Many religious experts, including the archbishop of Sao Paulo, Odilo Scherer, said it was too soon to gauge the visit's success.

"We don't have the illusion that the pope's coming will have as an immediate effect changed the situation," Scherer told Brazil's biggest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo. "Not even the pope thinks this."

Some said Benedict missed an opportunity to revitalize the church by building ties with Pentecostal congregations, which have drawn millions of former Catholics.

The pope didn't meet with Pentecostal leaders during an interfaith event that included Jewish, Muslim and Lutheran leaders, among others.

He also repeatedly referred to Pentecostal congregations as "sects" during his speeches and once lumped them in with "animist religions and new pseudo-religious phenomena."

Venturini took offense. "For us, the Catholics are the sects," he said. "Independent of religious divisions, the will of God is above everybody else, above any single man."

The pope also managed to offend some Latin American Catholics, especially adherents to liberation theology, a movement that preaches using religion for social change. On the flight to Brazil on Wednesday, the pope said the movement was "wrong" and that "everybody knows this."

"I lamented the criticism he made on the plane," said retired bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, one of liberation theology's main proponents in Brazil. "I don't accept his characterization of us as some kind of a lapse or fashion. The situation of Latin America's poor continues. And we're still here working for them."