MEXICO CITY -- The expectations surrounding the return of Pope Francis, the first pontiff to hail from the Americas, to his native region are enormous.
There has long been a thirst in Latin America, especially after the erudite and aloof Benedict XVI succeeded the amiable John Paul II, for a pope who heard the poor and a church that worked more closely on their behalf and in the spirit of redressing social inequities.
Many now hope they got what they were asking for in the person of Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Argentina, who arrived in Brazil on Monday.
Many followers predict his first overseas trip as pope will be a triumphant homecoming, one that will serve to shift the focus of the Roman Catholic Church from Europe and strict doctrine to a more inclusive ministry that emphasizes the daily plight of the faithful.
This can be tricky territory in massive Brazil, with its tumultuous history as a breeding ground and home for a particularly dedicated, socially active church, one tinged by leftist ideology. The Vatican for decades worked to crush the Liberation Theology movement, and Francis, as a senior Jesuit official in Buenos Aires, also disciplined priests who strayed too far in that direction.
One of Brazil’s leading proponents of Liberation Theology was Leonardo Boff, a former priest eventually fired for his work by Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI. Boff then became a leading critic of Benedict’s ascendancy to the papacy in 2005.
In a sign of the changing atmosphere, Boff recently hailed Francis as “a promising springtime” for the church after a “rigorous wintertime.”
Brazil has the largest Catholic population of any country. These Catholics practice a religion that has suffered inroads of Protestant evangelicals, but also always maintained its own style and casualness, a product of ancient African traditions and tropical informality.
For many, Benedict was a major turnoff.
If, however, the church is to enjoy a renaissance, the future is in the youth, several experts say.
The official reason for this trip is the annual World Youth Day, a weeklong event that draws young Catholics from all over the planet. It is customary for a pope to attend.
Francis, exuding his usual buoyancy, appeared excited Sunday about reaching out to the young.
“There will be many young people down there from every part of the world!” he said of Rio during his regular Sunday appearance in St. Peter’s Square. “And I think that you could call this Youth Week, yes, indeed, Youth Week!”