Urging young Catholics to make a "mess" of their dioceses, Pope Francis on Thursday signaled that his papacy will be anything but business-as-usual for the Vatican. Speaking during a pastoral visit to Brazil, he urged a shakeup in the Church, promoting street-level evangelism to bring it closer to the poor – and he led by example, visiting one of Rio’s most violent slums where he urged residents to press their government to rethink its priorities.
In his speech, attended by thousands of Argentine pilgrims from the pope's native country, Francis urged the devout to get out into the streets and spread their faith, saying a church that doesn't go out and preach simply becomes a civic or humanitarian group.
"I want to see the church get closer to the people,” he said, speaking off the cuff in his native Spanish. “I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures."
Already dubbed the "slum pope" for his previous work with the poor, Francis received a rapturous welcome in the Varginha shantytown on Thursday, a slum area of northern Rio. With government sharpshooters lining the route, Francis walked among the throngs, touching hands and smiling broadly.
"No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world," Francis told a crowd of thousands who braved a cold rain to welcome him.
"No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself."
With his stop in Varginha, Francis follows in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who visited two such favelas during a 1980 trip to Brazil. Mother Teresa visited Varginha in 1972. Her Missionaries of Charity order has kept a presence in the shantytown ever since.
Like Mother Teresa, Francis brought his own personal history to the visit: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio frequently preached in the poverty-wracked slums of his native city, putting into action his belief that the Catholic Church must go to the farthest peripheries to preach and not sit back and wait for the most marginalized to come to Sunday Mass.
PHOTO GALLERY: Pope Francis speaks at World Youth Day
"Events like this, with the pope and all the local media, get everyone so excited," said Antonieta de Souza Costa, a 56-year-old vendor and resident of Varginha. "I think this visit is going to bring people back to the Catholic Church."
Brazil is home to the largest Roman Catholic population in the world with 123 million people, but the church has seen a steady decline in membership over the past few decades, according to the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life.
The pope's message was also partially aimed at reversing the decline in the numbers of Catholics in most of Latin America, as many poor worshippers have left the church for Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations. Those churches have taken up a huge presence in favelas, or shantytowns such as Varginha, attracting people with nuts-and-bolts advice on how to improve their lives.
The Varginha visit was one of the highlights of Francis' weeklong trip to Brazil, his first as pope, and a trip seemingly tailor-made for the first pontiff from the Americas.
Though Francis' move to draw attention to the poorest in Brazil was welcomed by locals, analysts believe his visit is “no slam-dunk” to change the public's perception of the church.
“The Church will have to do far more than use a celebratory occasion every decade to convince poor parishioners of its high regard for the impoverished, Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs told Al Jazeera. “The Church will now have to energize its insistence on reconnecting with the poverty-stricken laity.”
The Catholic Church’s decline in followers by the millions is related to its neglect in the country.
“Elements of Brazil’s senior clergy watched their magnificent church structures attract dwindling members of the faithful,” Birns added.
Later Thursday, Francis traveled in his open-sided car through a huge crowd in the pouring rain to a welcoming ceremony on Copacabana Beach. It was his first official event with the hundreds of thousands of young people who have flocked to Rio for World Youth Day. Vatican officials estimated the crowd at 1 million.
Pope Francis is meeting with a small group of young convicts on Friday. He'll also hear confessions from some Catholic youth and then return to Copacabana Beach for a Stations of the Cross procession.
Ehab Zahriyeh contributed to this report. Al Jazeera and News services