Local media said up to three million pilgrims attended the climax of this year’s World Youth Day, with Mass-goers filling almost 2km of sand and spilling onto adjoining streets. Hundreds of thousands had camped on the beach after a vigil service on Saturday night.
During the pope’s first international trip, huge crowds have turned out to see Latin America’s first pontiff. He has won them over with his informality and direct attacks against social injustices.
Despite the success of the visit Pope Francis acknowledged at a meeting with Brazil’s bishops on Saturday than an “exodus” of Catholics had left the church to join evangelical Pentecostal churches across Latin America in recent decades.
He said those leaving viewed the Catholic Church as a “relic of the past” and “a prisoner of its own rigid formulas”. In the longest address of his trip he said “we have imported an intellectualism foreign to our people” and called instead for “a church capable of walking beside people, of doing more than simply listening to them”.
The speech was the clearest signal yet that the pope wants his church to compete with the growing evangelical movement by matching its ability to provide practical support to those suffering health problems, drink and drug addiction and financial difficulties.
His blunt speech to the bishops followed his address on Friday night to pilgrims in which he spoke of the “incoherence” within the Catholic Church which had led “so many young people to lose faith in the church”.
While Brazil’s Catholic hierarchy have been energised by the rapturous reception given to Pope Francis, analysts said it was too early to say whether the visit will be enough to stem the rise of evangelical churches across Latin America.
“We will really only be able to say the trip was a success when we see the census data in five or 10 years and see then whether the Catholic Church has stopped losing ground to the evangelicals,” says Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University.
During his trip the pope gave no indication his reform of the Vatican’s Curia would stretch to a debate about the church’s teachings, telling Brazil’s bishops the church “must remain faithful” to its doctrine. But a survey conducted by the Folha de S Paulo newspaper at World Youth Day found that many of those there disagreed with central tenets of the church’s teaching, with 65 per cent against its ban on contraception.
Pope Francis announced at the closing Mass that the next World Youth Day would be in Krakow, Poland in 2016, where the event’s creator John Paul II was once archbishop. It could reinforce the campaign for the former pope’s canonisation.
Rio de Janeiro’s authorities have drawn criticism for their poor planning of this year’s edition of the event, which has increased fears about the city’s ability to successfully host next year’s World Cup final and the Olympic Games in 2016.
During his visit the pope promised to return to return to Brazil in 2017. His next trip to Latin America is expected to include a return to his home country of Argentina. He was due to fly back to Rome last night.