The Pope keeps shaking things up in Rio. From the moment he arrived on his visit to Brazil, the Pontiff has been traveling with the car windows down to be closer to the people. Then he shed his security detail and bulletproof car when visiting the slums and shantytowns. Now he is calling for young men and women to stir up trouble in their dioceses—on purpose. The message he gave a gathering of 30,000 young Argentines in Rio yesterday was so revolutionary he apologized to the bishops in advance for its implications:
What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! […] I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!
If his message sounds almost evangelical in tone, it is because it is. Pope Francis wants young Catholics to spread the gospel, to evangelize, and to focus on relationships, especially with the poor. His message is on de-centralizing Vatican power, and getting the gospel message, literally, into the streets. The theme has been prominent throughout his young papacy, and even earlier. As Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he spoke out against the temptation of clericalism. “When the Church does not come out of itself to evangelize,” he said, “it becomes self-referential and then gets sick.”
More than one million people came to hear him preach last night at Copacabana Beach, and his sermon itself had an evangelical tone. He used classic evangelical language about becoming Jesus’ friend and responding to Jesus’s invitation for salvation. The optics themselves were far more like a theatrical evangelical set up than a traditional Vatican mass. Francis arrived by helicopter. Blue and pink lights flooded an enormous stage. A giant cross—without a Christ’s body—hung front and center.
The evangelical emphasis is not simply an effort to redirect the evangelicals and Pentecostals in South America, where they are exploding in shantytown and slum areas, back into the Catholic fold. It is also a testament to the evangelical flavor much of Catholicism has been adopting in the region, from changing liturgies to singing pop hits in mass. Catholicism, Francis knows, is at a historical precipice for change, and he is trying to push it over the edge on behalf of those society marginalizes.
Francis himself is a living witness of the message of change he is preaching. On Wednesday he visited a recovering drug addicts in the City of God slum, or favela, and criticized political plans for drug legalization. “It is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future,” he said. Today he is devoting time to hearing confessions because he wants to emphasize God’s forgiveness. It is a pattern of papal humility he established as soon as he was elected, from forgoing the pope’s traditional palace for more austere accommodations to visiting incarcerated women and washing their feet.
And the public continues to treat him like a rock star for it.