The first Latin American pope travels to Brazil, world’s largest Catholic country

A pope who has become known for his simple ways will walk the streets of a shantytown, visit young prisoners and greet hundreds of thousands of pilgrims this week during World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil, the world’s largest Roman Catholic nation.

In an effort to get closer to the people, Pope Francis will leave his bulletproof popemobile at home. For his first international trip since assuming leadership of the Church, Francis has insisted on traveling in an open-top jeep during his weeklong visit to this city that sits between the sea and the mountains.

His itinerary begins Monday and includes numerous opportunities to mingle with everyday people. He’ll pray with crowds of young people on Copacabana Beach, visit a favela in the poor Zona Norte, talk with young inmates from a Rio prison, inaugurate a hospital wing for treatment of drug addicts, travel via helicopter to the shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, a black Virgin Mary who is the patron saint of Brazil, and say his final Mass in a once vacant lot that has been transformed into Campus Fidei (Faith Field).

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, had planned to make the trip before he resigned and the new pope has kept the itinerary with a few twists that will bring him into closer contact with Brazilians and pilgrims who are expected from 170 countries.

Msgr. Franklyn Casale, president of St. Thomas University, called it a “fortuitous coincidence’’ that the first pope from Latin America will make his first international trip to the region. The pope plans to speak in both Spanish and Portuguese, “so he’s covering the continent,” he said.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who will welcome the pope when he arrives on Monday, said that when she first met the pontiff at the Vatican in March, his portuñol, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, was so good that no translator was necessary.

Francis’ reputation as a simple man who took the bus and answered his own phone when he was Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has preceded him in the Varginha shantytown where he is scheduled to visit Thursday. And his message of “a poor Church for the poor,’’ not one that seeks earthly power, resonates in the community with its tangle of ad hoc electrical hookups, piles of trash in the streets and stray chickens pecking around.

Part of the Complexo de Manguinhos shantytowns where police and the army wrested control from drug traffickers early this year, Varginha and neighboring favelas used to be known as “the Gaza Strip’’ because they were so violence-prone. In Varginha, Francis is expected to visit with a family and give a blessing to residents.

“For Pope Francis to visit us — a favela — as a pope, it is surprising. But as Bergoglio, this is what he did in Argentina. He lived in these communities,” said Everaldo Oliveira, a small-business owner in Varginha.

Last week, residents gathered at nearby Nossa Senhora de Bonsucesso de Inhaúma church to put together backpacks and kits for World Youth Day visitors who will be sleeping in the church, and to make a special gift for Francis.

Rafael Ricardo, 28, lugged in a sack of sand from Copacabana Beach that will form the background of a piece of art that will be presented to Francis and bear the Latin motto favored by the pope: “ Miserando atque eligendo (lowly but chosen).”

Ricardo, a management student who works in the purchasing department of a hotel, will be hosting some of the Youth Day pilgrims in his Varginha home. He was touched that the pope planned to visit his neighborhood.

“I think it is interesting because it is a place that a lot of people don’t know. It doesn’t get much media, unless it’s about violence or traffic,” Ricardo said. The visit, he said, “shows his spirituality, which is very oriented toward the poor.”

The pope will be meeting with local and national politicians in Brazil, home to 123 million Catholics. But most of his schedule will be devoted to events associated with World Youth Day, which was last held in Madrid in 2011. More than one million pilgrims, including a contingent from South Florida, are expected in Brazil. Most will be between the ages of 16 and 35.

“Personally, I look at this as an opportunity to grow in our faith,’’ said Maria Rivas, 31, a member of the Prince of Peace parish in West Miami-Dade who will travel to Brazil with her brother, Ronald, and a few other parish members. “This will be an opportunity to take time out to reevaluate and see where God is leading me.’’

The pope comes to Brazil at a time of social upheaval as well as disaffection with the church. Eighty-three percent of Brazilians called themselves Catholics in 1990 but by 2009 that number had fallen to 68 percent, according to a study by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. During the same time, Brazilians who identified themselves as Protestants or Pentecostals rose from 9 percent to 20 percent.

A recent report published by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that by 2010, the percent of population identifying themselves as Catholics had further eroded to 65 percent and the greatest declines in the faith occurred among young people and urban dwellers.

“Prepare well, prepare spiritually above all — in your communities, so that our gathering in Rio may be a sign of faith for the whole world,’’ Francis said during his Palm Sunday Mass.

“Latin America has traditionally been a Catholic area but there has been an erosion of faith. His going there certainly is good for the Church in Brazil and the Church in general,’’ Casale said.

On Palm Sunday, Francis emphasized the important role youths play in the Church and the world.

In a time of faltering faith, he urged young people not to be “ashamed of the cross.’’ Since 1984, the large wooden World Youth Day cross or Jubilee Cross has been carried around the world. In recent weeks, young people have been parading it through the streets and hillsides of Rio from the statue of Christ the Redeemer perched high above the city to iconic Sugarloaf Mountain for a Mass.

On Friday, Francis tweeted a welcome message to those traveling to Rio on his papal Twitter account, @pontifex: “Many of you have already arrived in Rio and many more are just arriving. We will see one another there in only three days.”

Not only are Brazilian Catholics more disaffected but the Brazilian population in general has major grievances. Since early June, millions of Brazilians in cities and towns across the country have taken to the streets in protest.

The demonstrations began as a protest against a São Paulo bus fare hike but grew into massive street protests against the money being spent for the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil will host, and preparations for the 2016 Olympics in Rio when Brazil has pressing educational and healthcare needs. They evolved into protests against corruption, the political status quo and other complaints.

Although the protests have tapered off, one in Rio on Wednesday night deteriorated into looting and clashes with police.

“I’m sure [the pope] will be confronted with the issue about Brazil making elaborate preparations for the World Cup when it isn’t addressing its social problems. It is a reality in Brazil,” said Andy Gomez, a Latin American expert at the University of Miami. “It will put him in a difficult position and it will be interesting to see how he will address these issues.’’

During the papal visit, some 20,000 extra security agents, including police, soldiers and the national guard, will be on duty in addition to Rio de Janeiro’s 44,000-strong police force.

At least one Brazilian elected official, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, would prefer the pope doesn’t wade too deeply into discussion of the protests. “I think Pope Francis does not have a direct relationship with Brazilian elected officials other than forgiving them of their sins, when they confess. It does not seem that Pope Francis is the most appropriate person for demonstrators to complain to,” Mayor Eduardo Paes told a reporter for O Globo.

“It is my sense that he’ll stay away from political messages. Instead his message will be about love of God. Certainly he’ll say something about poverty, the poor and wealth because that’s what he’s been doing,’’ Casale said. “I hope he’ll also say something about education because that is the way out of poverty.”