APARECIDA, Brazil — Pope Benedict XVI summoned his bishops from across Latin America to Brazil’s most holy shrine Sunday, urging them to be zealous missionaries to maintain Catholicism as the dominant religious force in the region.
“This is the faith that has made Latin America the ‘continent of hope,”’ Benedict told prelates from across the region and a crowd of nearly 150,000 attending an open-air Mass.
He was scheduled to address the bishops again when the conference opens later Sunday and set down his strategy to combat defections by millions of Catholics joining evangelical Protestant churches in recent years, as well as challenges to the church’s moral code by traditionally Catholic populations flouting its prohibitions on abortion, divorce and premarital sex.
In his homily at the Mass, hundreds of choir members sang hymns, and the German-born pope said the bishops must be “courageous and effective missionaries” to ensure the strength of the church.
Declining church rolls
The issue is crucial for the Vatican. While Latin America’s largest nation is home to more than 120 million of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, Brazil’s census shows the percentage of citizens characterizing themselves as Catholics plunged to 74 percent in 2000 from 89 percent in 1980. The ranks of those calling themselves evangelical Protestants rose to 15 percent from 7 percent.
Benedict said the church was not a political ideology or a social system, an apparent reference to his vehement opposition to the liberation theology movement in Latin America that he moved to crush while he was a cardinal working for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Liberation theology, which is based on a Marxist analysis of society, holds that criticizing the oppression of the poor and marginalized should be central to Christian theology, and that the Christian faith should be reinterpreted specifically to deliver oppressed people from injustice.
But Benedict said Sunday that the church shares the concerns of all people, “especially those who are poor or afflicted.” That is a key issue in Brazil, where the divide between rich and poor is among the worst in the world.
Waving flags from countries across South America, the faithful clogged a plaza outside Aparecida’s mammoth basilica — home to Brazil’s patron saint, a black Virgin Mary — to hear the pope, cheering as he motored through the crowd in the popemobile, waving to the masses.
Saturday night, Benedict implored the Virgin Mary to “protect the Brazilian and Latin American family” and energize Latin America’s priests and nuns with evangelical zeal.
“Pour out upon our brothers and sisters throughout Latin America a true missionary ardor, to spread faith and hope,” he said.
Pontiff: Drug dealers to face divine retribution
After stressing the church’s moral teaching on abortion and sex during three days of events in Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city, Benedict on Saturday deplored drug trafficking and its damage to society, threatening Latin American drug dealers with divine retribution.
“God will call you to account for your deeds,” Benedict warned drug dealers to cheers from recovering addicts at a drug treatment center near Aparecida.
Brazil and the rest of Latin America face dangerously high rates of drug abuse and traffickers must “reflect on the grave harm they are inflicting on countless young people and on adults from every level of society,” Benedict said. “Human dignity cannot be trampled upon in this way.”
Waiting to catch a glimpse of the pope in the shadow of the basilica, 68-year-old Maria Costa said Brazilians needed to hear Benedict’s message, and that his five-day visit to Brazil could make a difference.
“It should help revitalize the church,” she said. “Catholics weren’t feeling very good with the church, and that’s why so many were leaving. And I think that could change now. Let’s hope so.”
The pope leaves Aparecida for Rome after addressing the bishops, but the prelates will spend another two weeks trying to determine how to reverse the church’s losses.
The black Virgin Mary is a 3-foot wooden statue pulled from a river in the 18th century by poor fishermen who were not catching any fish, and then suddenly caught loads in their nets. Miracles were subsequently attributed to the statue, and so many pilgrims flocked to Aparecida that a basilica was built. It was inaugurated as a shrine in 1955.
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