RIO DE JANEIRO – Pope Francis on Saturday issued what the Vatican said was one of the most important speeches of his papacy, taking to task the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil for hemorrhaging droves of followers to other faiths or to apathy.
Speaking in frank terms to bishops from around the country, Francis blamed the “exodus” on a long list of failings by the church and leaders sometimes caught up by intellectualisms or overly rigid rules – a church “too distant … too cold.”
“Are we still a church capable of warming hearts?” the pope said. “We need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them,” he said.
The Catholic Church in Brazil has lost several million followers, especially to Protestant evangelical churches that provide services in jails and slums, known as favelas, and often attract new followers with folksy promises of prosperity and other benefits.
The pope’s speech over lunch repeated a theme he addressed earlier in the day, and several times during his week in Brazil – that priests and Catholic leaders had to “shake up” their institutions and “get out into the streets” to build the church.
“It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people,” he said. “Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They too are invited to the table of the Lord.”
Earlier Saturday, the pope seemed to endorse the message of Brazilian demonstrators who have filled the streets here in recent weeks, urging government leaders to work to redress severe social inequities. But he also told young protesters to steer away from violence and toward “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”
“The outcry, the call for justice, continues to be heard even today,” the pope told a gathering of senior Brazilian officials in the ornate Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro.
His message to members of Brazil’s elite leadership repeated themes of social justice and of reaching out to the poor, which have been the hallmark of his weeklong pilgrimage to the world’s largest Roman Catholic country.