Acknowledging the Catholic Church’s heavy loss of members in Brazil over recent decades, Pope Francis told the country’s bishops that they must learn to understand and sympathise with the reasons for people’s disaffection and speak to them in a simpler language of beauty, mystery and love.
“We need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them, a Church which accompanies them on their journey,” he said.
The Pope made his remarks on Saturday at a meeting with 300 active and retired Brazilian cardinals and bishops. According to the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi the five-page speech was the longest to date of his young pontificate.
While appealing for hope, the Pope painted a grim picture of the Church’s state in Brazil.
“We have laboured greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures,” he said. “We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant.”
Although Brazil has more Catholics than any other country, the church’s share of the country’s population declined from 92 per cent in 1970 to 65 per cent in 2010, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center based on Brazilian census data.
Pope Francis pointed to the social and cultural impact of what he called a “relentless process of globalization [and] an often uncontrolled process of urbanization” to help explain the change.
Among the effects of these economic transformations, he said, were a “loss of the experience of belonging to any ‘nest’ whatsoever, subtle but relentless violence [and] the inner fragmentation and breakup of families.”
The unhappiness bred by these losses, he said, inspires many to “find an answer in drugs, alcohol and sex, which only become further prisons”. Others seek solace in a “poor imitation” of the Church and “go off in search of someone who will lead them even further astray”.
The Pope did not specifically refer to Brazil’s fast-growing Protestant population, which rose from 15 per cent of the national total in 2000 to 22 per cent in 2010, but referred to the appeal of the “new religious groups that are sprouting up”.
Pope Francis laid much blame on Catholic leaders, who, he said, had lost power to communicate.
“At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people,” he said. “For ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.”
The Pope also warned the bishops against assimilating fashionable values of secular culture.
“People today are attracted by things that are faster and faster: rapid internet connections, speedy cars and planes, instant relationships,” he asked. “Is the Church herself caught up in the frantic pursuit of efficiency? Dear brothers, let us recover the calm to be able to walk at the same pace as our pilgrims, keeping alongside them, remaining close to them, enabling them to speak of the disappointments present in their hearts and to let us address them.”
Among the Pope’s specific recommendations for the Church in Brazil were deeper engagement by bishops in national debates on such “pressing concerns” as “education, health and social harmony”, and more attention to collegiality within the episcopate, downplaying “central bureaucracy” in favour of “local and regional elements”.
He gave special attention to the needs of the Amazon basin, in terms of both ecological protection and the training of indigenous clergy to serve indigenous peoples there.
“‘Pastoral care’ is nothing other than the exercise of the church’s motherhood,” the Pope said. “She gives birth, suckles, gives growth, corrects, nourishes and leads by the hand.
“So we need a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy,” he said. “Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.”