More than two million people streamed to the white sands of Rio's Copacabana beach Saturday evening to join Pope Francis for a prayer vigil, ending a day in which he severely chastised Brazilian biships for what he called "the exodus'' of Catholics to other religions.
The vigil wraps up the church's World Youth Day, which Francis made the focus of his first international trip since he was named the head of the church last March.
And in a bid to capture the young people who had gathered there, he teased that being a good Catholic is akin to training for soccer. Only, he added, Jesus offers one "something more than the World Cup.
Francis is an avid soccer fan himself, with allegiances to the Buenos Aires club San Lorenzo. Brazil will be the site of the 2014 World Cup.
But not all youth were captivated by his words. Women's rights activists protested against the Church's stance on social issues like abortion, pre-martial sex and same-sex marriage in a march alongside Catholic pilgrims.
"We don't agree with the sexism, patriarchy and oppression against women that historically this institution preached and reproduced," Mariana Souza, female activist and protest organizer told the Associated Press.
Francis' words were far sterner when he faced an audience of 300 bishops earlier in the day, urging them to be closer to the poor and telling political leaders they must address the country’s social malaise, which drew thousands of protesters to Brazilian streets in June.
In the longest and most important speech of his four-month-old pontificate to an audience of bishops in Rio, Francis emphasized the need for Catholics to reach the faithful on the margins of society – the primary focus of his trip to World Youth Day.
Francis took a direct swipe at the "intellectual" message of the church that so characterized the pontificate of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
"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.
Francis asked bishops to reflect on why hundreds of thousands of Catholics have left for other congregations that have grown exponentially in recent decades, particularly in Brazil's slums or favelas.
According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil decreased from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the church's share of the total population dropping from 74 percent to 65 percent. During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals skyrocketed from 26 million to 42 million, increasing from 15 percent to 22 percent of the population in 2010.
Francis offered a breathtakingly blunt list of explanations for the "exodus."
"Perhaps the church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas," he said.
Despite Francis' critical assessment of the state of the church in Brazil, the pope's reception in Rio has shown that he can still draw a crowd. Organizers for a mass he will lead before returning to Rome now estimate the service could draw 3 million people.
Al Jazeera and the wire services