If Roman Catholicism can be compared with a fleet, then the Brazilian church has long been it's largest aircraft carrier -- with an estimated 123 million Catholics, more than any other country on earth.
But that isn't how Pope Francis described this church during one of the less-publicized addresses during his epic World Youth Day sojourn in Rio de Janeiro. Instead of a rich and powerful vessel for the old establishment, he told Brazil's bishops that their church is now a humble sailing ship surrounded by the giant ships of globalization and Protestantism.
"The Church's barque is not as powerful as the great transatlantic liners which cross the ocean," said Francis, in the first of two lengthy, serious addresses to bishops from this region.
"Dear brothers, the results of our pastoral work do not depend on a wealth of resources, but on the creativity of love. ... Another lesson which the Church must constantly recall is that she cannot leave simplicity behind; otherwise she forgets how to speak the language of Mystery," said the official text. "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."
The Argentinean pope didn't have to do the math concerning Brazil's 275 dioceses. As noted in a July 18 analysis from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Catholic fortunes have clearly declined there in the 21st Century. Between 2000 and 2010, Catholics dropped from 74 percent of Brazil's population to 65 percent. In that same period, Protestantism grew from 15 percent of the population to 22 percent.
The rise in Pentecostalism has been particularly striking, with 6 percent of Brazil's population attending these churches in 1991 -- compared with 13 percent in 2010.
The texts from Pope Francis made it clear that he thinks the evangelistic efforts of local clergy have been weak and, in particular, that they must regain a common touch that resonates with the poor, the weak and those yearning for spiritual experiences that transcend mere lectures.
Comparing Catholicism's ancient traditions with the city of Jerusalem, the pope asked Brazil's bishops if they still have what it takes to win those who have fled their altars seeking forms of faith considered "more lofty, more powerful and faster" than the Catholicism that is their heritage.
"I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles," he said. "Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty? ...
"People today are attracted by things that are faster and faster: rapid Internet connections, speedy cars and planes, instant relationships. But at the same time we see a desperate need for calmness, I would even say slowness. Is the Church still able to move slowly: to take the time to listen, to have the patience to mend and reassemble? Or is the Church herself caught up in the frantic pursuit of efficiency?"
When it comes to training pastors capable of doing this work, there is no quick fix and, warned Francis, "Bishops may not delegate this task."
By the time he addressed conference leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean, shortly before leaving the country, Pope Francis was openly stating his desire for bishops to leave the comfort of their ecclesiastical fortresses and to return to the pastoral front lines, working elbow to elbow with their people.
As one observer told "Whispers in the Loggia" blogger Rocco Palmo, "This will cause heart failure in certain quarters." The pope appealed for better preaching, improved Bible studies, a renewed presence among the poor, expanded use of the talents of women and a true openness to laypeople providing parish-level leadership in cooperation with their pastors.
"The key," said Palmo, via email, "is that Francis is far more invested on the 'culture war' inside the church" than in controversies about public issues that make headlines. The pope is "literally declaring war on the clericalism, decadence, etc. that he sees inside the walls than anything going on in the world outside."