Luca Zennaro / Pool via EPA
Pope Francis greets bishops prior to a holy mass as part of the 28th World Youth Day in Metropolitan cathedral of St. Sebastian, Brazil, July 27, 2013.
Pope Francis, in a stunningly candid assessment of the state of the Catholic Church, said on Saturday it should look in the mirror and ask why so many people are leaving the faith of their fathers.
On the penultimate day of his trip to Brazil, Francis delivered a long address to the country's bishops in which he suggested elements of what could become a blueprint for stopping what he called an "exodus."
"I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?" he said in a speech remarkable for its frankness about the hemorrhaging of the Church in many countries.
The Argentine pope, who is in Rio for a Catholic international jamboree known as World Youth Day, referred to what he called "the mystery of those who leave the Church" because they think it "can no longer offer them anything meaningful or important."
The Church has been losing members throughout the world to secularism and to other religions, including in Latin America, where evangelical groups have won over many converts.
He acknowledged that many people see the Church as a "relic of the past," too caught up in itself, and a "prisoner of its own rigid formulas."
While he said the Church "must remain faithful" to its religious doctrine, it had to be closer to the people and their real problems.
"Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people's side, of doing more than simply listening to them," he said.
"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.
In Brazil, the number of Catholics has dwindled rapidly in the decades since its once-rural population moved increasingly to major cities, where modern consumer culture has overtaken more provincial mores and where Protestant denominations, aggressively courting followers in urban outskirts and shantytowns, have won many converts.
"We need a Church capable of restoring citizenship to her many children who are journeying, as it were, in an exodus," he said.
The address to the bishops complemented an earlier homily in Rio's cathedral, where he urged priests worldwide to leave their comfortable surroundings to go out and serve the poor and needy.
"We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel," he said in the sermon of a Mass in Rio's cathedral.
Since his election in March as the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, Francis has been prodding priests, nuns and bishops to think less about their careers in the Church and listen more to the cries of those who are hungry to fill both material and spiritual needs.
"It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door and meet the people!" he said.
Known as the "slum cardinal" in his native Argentina because of his austere lifestyle and visits to poor areas, Francis made a clarion call to clergy to take risks and go out among the faithful who need them most.
"It is in the 'favelas' and 'villas miseria' that one must go to seek and to serve Christ," he said, quoting the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta and using the terms used in Brazil and Argentina for shantytowns.
Francis has set a new tone in the Vatican, rejecting the lush papal residence his predecessors used in the Apostolic Palace and living instead in a small suite in a Vatican guest house, and often eating in the common dining room.
The pope spoke as hundreds of thousands of young people were converging on Rio's famed Copacabana beach for an all night prayer vigil ahead of concluding ceremonies on Sunday, when he returns to Rome.
Earlier, in a talk at Rio's theater, he said leaders must address the issues raised in protests in Brazil, saying dialogue was the only way to resolve the issues.
Latin America's largest nation has been rocked by protests against corruption, the misuse of public money and the high cost of living. Most of the protesters are young.
He urged leaders not to remain deaf to "the outcry, the call for justice (that) continues to be heard even today" and, in an apparent reference to corruption, spoke of "the task of rehabilitating politics."
First published July 27 2013, 2:27 PM