Brazil buzzes in anticipation of Pope Francis visit

A young pilgrim wrapped in a Brazilian flag with an image of Pope Francis speaks with mates in Rio de Janeiro on July 21, 2013. Pope Francis is due to arrive in Rio on July 22 to attend the week-long Catholic World Youth Day (WYD). AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO Pope Francis lands Monday in a Brazil electric with anticipation for the pontiff's first international trip, heading into the open arms of his home continent where mammoth crowds are expected to celebrate Mass on Rio's Copacabana beach.

The pope is coming to meet with legions of young Roman Catholics converging on Rio for the church's World Youth Day festival, believers whose behavior so far hasn't been typical of the normal tourists in this seaside Sin City known for hedonistic excess.

More than 1 million people are expected to pack the white sands of Copacabana to celebrate Mass with Francis. He also will visit a tiny chapel in a trash-strewn slum, and grassroots Catholics love that he plans a side trip to venerate Brazil's patron saint.

"I'm here for faith! I'm here for joy! And I'm here for the first Latino pope!" Ismael Diaz, a 27-year-old pilgrim wrapped in the flag of his native Paraguay, said as he bounded down the stone sidewalks of Copacabana hours ahead of Francis' arrival.

Diaz gave high fives to four fellow pilgrims, then turned toward local beachgoers who looked on while calmly sipping green coconut water and staring from behind dark sunglasses.

"I'm here because I have the force of God in me and want to make disciples of all. Arghhhhhhhhhh!" he yelled, lifting his head and howling into Rio's hot, humid air before flexing his arms and going into a bodybuilder's pose.

Francis would have an easy time of it if all Catholics shared Diaz's fervor. But Diaz and his fellow pilgrims are the exception to the rule in Brazil and much of Latin America, a region with more faithful than any other in the world but where millions have left the church for rival Pentecostal evangelical churches or secularism.

A worker rides a bicycle as the stage where Pope Francis will deliver mass next week is being prepared, in Guaratiba, south of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday, July 21, 2013.
AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo

A poll from the respected Datafolha group published Sunday in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo said 57 percent of Brazilians age 16 and older call themselves Catholic, the lowest ever recorded. Just six years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI visited, a poll by the same firm found 64 percent considered themselves among the faithful. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Brazil, 89 percent listed themselves as Catholics, according to that year's census.

Pentecostal evangelicals stood at 19 percent of the population in the latest poll, rising from virtually nothing three decades ago by aggressively proselytizing in Brazil's impoverished slums.

Beyond the numbers who claim one faith or another is the huge gap in the level of participation in the different churches, a fervor factor that deeply troubles the Catholic Church. The Datafolha poll said 63 percent of Pentecostal evangelicals report going to church at least once a week, while only 28 percent of Catholics say they go to Mass weekly.

Datafolha interviewed 3,758 people across Brazil on June 6-7 and said the poll had a margin error of two percentage points.

Pope Francis boards a plane at Rome's Fiumicino international airport, Monday, July 22, 2013, for his first trip abroad as pontiff.
AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

In his few months as pontiff, the 76-year-old Francis has demonstrated an easy ability to connect with people, in particular with young Catholics, demonstrating humility and a warmth the faithful feel is genuine. Church leaders hope his Brazil trip will deepen that appeal.

Keeping to his example that the Catholic church must be humble, Francis carried his own black hand luggage as he boarded a special Alitalia flight from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport on Monday.

"Every pope is different, and Pope Francis is showing himself to be extremely charismatic, with a language that is simple and direct," Sao Paulo Cardinal Odilo Scherer said. "I absolutely think there is renewed happiness within the church that began with the election of Pope Francis."

Fernando Altemeyer, a theologian at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, said that warmth and understanding is entirely related to Francis being the first pope from Latin America, where he's had more exposure to the harsh realities of life on the continent than European popes of the past.

"It allows him to understand and promote a Catholicism that's felt in the body, that's visceral," Altemeyer said. "That changes a Catholicism that for hundreds of years has been felt more in the mind, that's been a very European Christianity."

All of which gives even more force to a New Evangelization effort that was pushed by John Paul II and picked up steam under Benedict, with the World Youth Day and its theme of "Go and make disciples of all nations" expressing the desire to more ardently spread the Gospel.