He’ll likely draw large and enthusiastic crowds, his freewheeling and warm style should play as well on the road as it does in Rome, and his palpable concern for the poor should strike deep chords in a society where social justice is an idée fixe.
Moreover, amid a summer of discontent, Brazilians seem hungry for a good story to tell about themselves. When the final word is in, the dominant headline will probably be something like: “Francis brings peace and wins hearts.”
That said, every papal trip is a journey into the unknown, and Francis faces some real risks on this outing, a few immediate and short-term, others longer-term and harder to evaluate amid the euphoria.
In terms of security and crowd control, officials in Brazil have announced they’re categorizing the events on the pope’s itinerary as “green,” “orange” or “red,” corresponding to the threat level they believe each poses.
Stealing a page from their playbook, we’ll lay out here several question marks facing Francis in Brazil in ascending levels of seriousness.
Beyond the imagery and feel-good storylines, how well the new pontiff navigates these risks will go a long way toward shaping the substantive success or failure of the outing.
‘Green’ risks: blowback and protest
Brazil’s streets have been churning recently, and a principal cause is the perception that the government is spending buckets of money on splashy events such as the World Cup and the Olympics while public services such as education, health care and transportation languish.
In theory, Brazilians could see World Youth Day as another case in point and take out their frustrations on the pope. There are at least three compelling reasons, however, why that seems fairly unlikely.
First, there’s a basic dynamic on virtually every papal trip, no matter who the pontiff is.
Potential storm clouds, such as resentment over cost and mixed public reaction to the pope’s message, dominate the coverage in the run-up. Once he lands, things go better than expected, and by the end, the trip is styled a success — in part, of course, because it’s being measured against the expectations of disaster the media helped create.
So far, there’s no reason to think things won’t play out that way this time, too.
Second, Francis arrives with high levels of popularity as well as perceptions that his heart is in the right place vis-à-vis the concerns that have driven Brazilian protestors into the streets.
He also benefits from the buzz of being history’s first Latin American pope making his triumphal homecoming.
In some ways, Francis has already achieved the kind of iconic moral status that surrounds someone like Nelson Mandela, and few movements dedicated to the pursuit of justice of any stripe would want to end up on his bad side.
Instead, the antagonists in Brazil’s internal tensions seem to be competing with each other to see who can show more deference and respect.
The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, recently asked protestors not to take out their grievances on the pope because he’s not to blame for “the sins of Brazilian politicians.”
In fact, Paes said, maybe Francis would forgive them if they make a good confession.
Leaders of the uprisings, for their part, told reporters they have no intention of embarrassing Francis because their resentments aren’t directed at him.
The activists who propelled people into the streets in June have announced they’ll stage protests July 26 and 27 in Rio under the banner of, “Pope, look how we’re treated!” The assumption is that Francis is such a moral beacon that airing the failures of the country’s political class before his eyes might shame them into reform.
That may not bode well for politicos, but it doesn’t seem to augur any massive antipapal blowback.
Third, there’s no comparison in terms of the amount of public money being invested in events such as the World Cup and the Olympics and the weeklong World Youth Day.
Reportedly, the Brazilian government is shoveling $13 billion into the World Cup, with much of that outlay going to install luxury sky boxes at soccer stadiums.
By way of contrast, the various levels of government are contributing just $60 million for WYD in security and transport subsidies.
Once Brazilians realize the disparity, they’ll probably be much less likely to lump the papal trip in with the other objects of their pique.
‘Orange’ risks: security and manipulation
Whenever a major world leader appears in public, including the pope, there’s always an outside risk of violence. While there’s no reason to think it’s more likely in Brazil than elsewhere, there’s also no reason to think it’s less likely, either.
If something does happen, however, it won’t be because the Brazilian security blanket wasn’t sufficiently thick.
The defense ministry has announced a boost in the number of military personnel on duty to 10,266, from an initial deployment of 8,500.
Meanwhile, officials in Rio de Janeiro have vowed to stage “the biggest police operation in the city’s history,” assigning 12,000 regular officers and 1,700 members of an elite security unit to the pope’s protection.
Adding it up, that’s 24,000 soldiers, police and security experts.
Vatican officials have expressed “total confidence” in the security preparations, and that massive deployment is probably part of the reason why.
Another risk, and one that’s harder to put people in the field to prevent, is that Francis’ words and deeds could be exploited by various actors — politicians, activists, pundits and media outlets — to bolster one side or the other in the country’s internal battles.
At the moment, much of the political drama in Brazil is focused on the future of the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff.
Not so long ago, her re-election in October 2014 seemed a foregone conclusion, but now some believe she’s been sufficiently weakened that things may be more wide open, not only for a challenger from the center-right opposition, but potentially even from within her own center-left Workers’ Party.
A poll released Tuesday found Rousseff’s approval rating at 49 percent, down from 73 percent in June, before the protests began.
As a result, Brazilians will be closely watching what happens during Francis’ trip to see if it seems to tilt the playing field in somebody’s favor.
I asked a veteran Brazilian journalist what the reaction will be if, for instance, Francis says something generic about poverty during his first encounter with Rousseff on Monday afternoon.
Without having to think about it, here’s what he rattled off:
- Brazilian media: “Pope presses Rousseff to do more for the poor”
- Protestors: “The pope supports us!”
- Political opposition: “Pope backs need for a change”
- Rousseff’s faction: “Pope endorses our program”
In the end, there may be little Francis can do to short-circuit this sort of spin other than by avoiding partisan gestures or language.
At the end of the trip, however, there is still a risk that it may come off as a political gift for somebody — with the potential to embitter and antagonize the perceived loser.
‘Red’ risks: mission and ecumenism
Probably the most serious risk Francis faces is that his trip will be a short-term triumph, but without the long-term consequences he’d undoubtedly wish it to have.
Brazil is a good bellwether for broader trends affecting the church across the continent.
To get a sense of what they are, here’s the headline from a new study of Brazil released by the Pew Forum on Thursday: “Brazil’s Changing Religious Landscape: Roman Catholics in Decline, Protestants on the Rise.”
As the Pew study notes, Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, with an estimated Catholic population of 123 million.
Catholicism has been the country’s dominant, and for a long time basically only, religious tradition since the era of Portuguese colonization in the 16th century.
Yet the Catholic share of the population has been dropping dramatically in recent decades, and over the last 10 years, the overall number of Catholics began to decline as well.
A quarter-century ago, more than 90 percent of Brazil was Catholic; a decade ago, it was 74 percent; and today, it’s 65 percent.
It doesn’t require a great leap of imagination to envision a situation not too far down the line in which Catholics in Brazil represent a statistical minority.
The big winners in this transition have been Protestants, mainly evangelicals and Pentecostals, who now number 42 million, or 22 percent of the population.
Gainers also include Brazilians with no religious affiliation, who in the West we would probably call “secularists.” They now include 15 million people, more than 8 percent of the national total.
The Pew study finds that immigration and demographics don’t account for the rise of Pentecostalism in Brazil, among other things because less than 1 percent of the population is foreign-born. The main factor, according to the study, is “religious switching” — and although they’re too polite to say so out loud, what they mean is defections from the Catholic church.
Perhaps most relevant for the future, the Pew data suggest Catholicism is having an especially hard time among the young and among city-dwellers — in other words, among precisely the demographic cohorts destined to set the tone in Brazil.
Here’s one fascinating tidbit: According to the Pew study, only 46 percent of the population of Rio de Janeiro, the city Francis will be visiting next week, actually identifies as Catholic.
These trends pose two clear challenges.
First is the ecumenical situation. Brazil is transitioning from a religiously homogenous society to an eclectic mix of different affiliations, which means Catholic leaders have some catching up to do in terms of dialogue and outreach.
Relations among evangelicals, Pentecostals and Catholics in Brazil are a mixed bag; some get along quite well and perceive common cause in regards to the increasing tug of secularism, while others are stuck in confessional rivalries.
In the mid-1990s, for instance, Bishop Sergio von Helde of Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in Latin America, went on TV on the Feast of Our Lady of Aparecida, the national patroness of Brazil, and kicked an icon of the Madonna, declaring, “This is no saint!”
Uproar ensued in which outraged Catholics attacked Pentecostal churches and von Helde was convicted of public disrespect for a religious symbol and sentenced to two years in jail.
To illustrate that such tensions have not entirely dissipated, consider that there are three major Brazilian TV networks with correspondents aboard the papal plane for Francis’ trip.
Yet the country’s second-largest network, Record, owned by an evangelical/Pentecostal billionaire named Edir Macedo Bezerra, is not represented.
In the official program for the papal visit, there’s no meeting planned between Francis and leaders of other Christian denominations, although Benedict XVI held exactly such an ecumenical session when he visited in 2007.
Especially given that omission, it’s uncertain whether the trip will generate any new ecumenical momentum.
On the missionary front, both during his 15 years as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and since becoming pope, Francis has repeatedly articulated his vision of a more evangelical church — a church that, to use the pope’s language, gets “out of the sacristy and into the streets.”
That was the heart of the vision for Catholicism in Latin America expressed in the 2007 document adopted by the continent’s bishops meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, the famed Marian shrine that Francis will visit July 24.
If there’s any place on the Catholic map where a more missionary version of Catholicism is in order, it’s arguably Brazil. Therein lies the genuine drama of the trip: Can Francis translate his personal popularity into a lasting burst of missionary energy?
If so, perhaps sober historians, not just excitable journalists and pundits, will declare his first Latin American homecoming a success. If not, then the trip may end up seeming a feel-good exercise with mixed results.