World Youth Day (WYD) was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this year and turned out to be a unique and rewarding—if mixed—experience. For instance, after standing in line for two hours at the Sambodromo, where the famous Rio Carnival takes place, I got my Pilgrim Kit—a backpack containing a t-shirt, a wooden cross, a cap, a liturgical book, and a pilgrim’s manual. The kit also contained a different kind of souvenir: a Keys to Bioethics booklet—an anti-choice publication from the National Pastoral Commission on the Family. I decided against telling them that I was attending on behalf of Catholics for Choice.
Being at the Sambodromo made me think about how Brazilians view their bodies and sexuality differently than other Latin Americans. Brazilians tend to be more open and are not ashamed of showing their bodies at the beach or at Carnival. Young people start their sexual lives at an earlier age than the rest of the continent. In addition, Brazil was the birthplace of progressive and grassroots church movements like liberation theology. With this background, I set out to get to know the audience Pope Francis would be addressing to find out their views on the Catholic teachings regarding sexuality, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, among other issues.
When I exited the subway at Copacabana I was welcomed by a van full of women yelling, “Nossa religião é a satisfação” (“Our religion is satisfaction”). This was part of Marcha das Vadias (Slutwalk), whose participants were protesting Catholic teachings that condemn sexuality as something dirty and shameful. The demonstration was for the right of women to have control over their own bodies, for the legalization of abortion, for same-sex marriage, and for promoting respect for the secular state. (Watch the video here.)
Further on, I was greeted with the overwhelming sight of three million people gathered at the beach. I talked to some of the pilgrims, each of whom was touched by the simplicity and sympathy of Pope Francis in comparison to his predecessor. One woman pointed out that we owe this opportunity, this “miracle” of the new pope, to the humility of Benedict XVI, who recognized he could no longer lead the church and stepped down.
Many of the people I talked to expressed hope that the new pope would revitalize the church and close the gap that exists between the old, traditional church and the modern world. Leticia, a 20 year old from Mexico, said that the church is very closed-off at the moment, but she is positive that Pope Francis is the ideal person to change that. Some people even called the new pope a revolutionary. Others stated that under the leadership of Pope Francis, they don’t feel as ashamed of being Catholic as they had previously due to the sexual abuse scandals. They cited Pope Francis’ declaration of zero tolerance on sexual abuse and his steps to reform the curia and clean up the Vatican Bank as factors that restored their pride in the church.
Those I met from the progressive church sectors, who have been working in the shadows during the last two decades, said they have expectations that the spirit of Vatican II would be recovered thanks to the pope’s commitment to a church for the poor and excluded. Some of my neighbors in the multitude shouted, “Graças a Deus pelo papa da transformação” (“Thank you God for the pope of transformation”).
Most of the young people I spoke with said they do not see a conflict between their faith and contraception or premarital sex. Rafaela, a 19-year-old girl from Rio, said she hopes that all cardinals and bishops worldwide follow the pope’s steps and come down to the level of the people, especially by reaching out to young people, who are a majority in Latin American countries. She said she disagrees with church teachings on sexuality and is convinced she is not a bad Catholic because she has had sex before marriage and takes the pill. Rafaela said she wishes that the hierarchy would look at contraception and abortion as public health issues.
Another person I interviewed, Bruno, a 20 year old who is gay, expressed hope that Pope Francis would stop homophobia within the church. What I heard among the crowd was echoed by a survey of 427 pilgrims ages 16 to 40, which was published just this week by Veja, a Brazilian weekly. The poll, conducted with Ipsos MediaCT, showed that 62 percent of respondents believe that a Catholic who does not agree 100 percent with church teachings can still continue to be a Catholic in good standing. Further, 64 percent said they agree that a Catholic has the right to fight in order to change the hierarchy’s positions regarding abortion, sex before marriage, or same-sex marriage.
Sister Marta (not her real name), a Combonian missionary from Mozambique, expressed her hopes for a renovation of the church under Pope Francis. On contraception and the use of condoms on a continent that faces significant problems related to the AIDS crisis, Sister Marta said she was glad that Africans are far away from Rome, and thus separated “from those single men who are not directly affected by the disease and have no relatives or friends dying from it.” At an official level, she said, clergy accept the prohibition on condoms, but on the ground many sisters and priests allow and promote their use in order to stop transmission of the virus. Since the Vatican has not expressed its unconditional approval of condoms, these religious workers cannot, unlike many advocates, officially advocate for this HIV-prevention method.
In our conversation, the missionary also mentioned that humanity is very diverse and God very creative. Because God loves each of his children, there’s no reason for the church to exclude homosexuals. Sister Marta pointed out that there are gay and lesbian clergy as well, “so let’s stop the hypocrisy.” She added that the LGBTQ movement poses a big challenge for the pope because it has gained momentum in recent years. How will Pope Francis respond to their demands, she wondered—would he really be in favor of an inclusive church? This sister from Mozambique hopes that Pope Francis has the necessary forces to confront all the mighty people in Rome who oppose real change within the church. She said she is afraid that the pope is risking his life, because there’s a lot of power and money at stake for those who prefer the status quo.
The gigantic stage at one end of the beach featured a huge show, with Catholic singers from many countries in charge of preparing the crowd for the arrival of the pope. When Pope Francis began his parade along the six-kilometer beach, it was a moment of collective hysteria. He is a very charismatic man, and I must confess I was enthusiastic as well. We need to remember that Pope John Paul II created World Youth Day to offer an emotional catharsis, a big show where the pope would be received like a rock star. Pope Benedict XVI, who never attained the same star status among youth, could not follow in the steps of his predecessor. At this WYD, however, Pope Francis demonstrated that he knows how to reach the multitude with a commanding presence. Millions of people, most of them young, were yelling and many of them crying at the sight of the pontiff.
Generally speaking, WYD was a huge show with a big star, as in the early years. But this time, the audience might have been a little bit different—more diverse and open. The performance of Pope Francis during his first four months of papacy—his simplicity and his call for a church for the poor—could have been what attracted representatives from the progressive wings of the church. But this success was accompanied by some organizational failures, demonstrating Rio’s lack of necessary infrastructure for hosting massive events, which the Brazilian media characterized as a disaster. The vigil’s last-minute change of venue from the mud of a flooded Guaratiba, 70 kilometers west from Rio, to Copacabana did not discourage the pilgrims, some of them traveling up to 50 kilometers each day in packed buses and subways to attend the events. Most of these visitors slept on the beach, and they waited in hour-long queues for the portable toilets.
In return, pilgrims received the pope’s recognition of the need for renewal in the church. They heard his instruction to the bishops to embrace the poor and go out of their parishes to spread the gospel. They received his hope for a rehabilitation of politics and a more humane economic system, his appeal for government and demonstrators to take part in a constructive dialogue to achieve a more just society. They witnessed his call to young people not to give up hope and to continue fighting against corruption, injustice, and inequality—all major themes during his visit.
In contrast to his repeated allusions to poverty and social justice, Pope Francis has remained almost silent about sexual issues during his first four months of papacy, and he continued this approach at WYD. Unlike his two predecessors, for whom sexual morals were a central issue, Pope Francis has made little to no reference to abortion, contraception, clerical celibacy, condoms, or same-sex marriage. Rather, he has given signs that social justice and the reform of the curia will be the main issues during his papacy. His in-flight press conference on his trip home, during which he offered a conciliatory message to gay priests, seemed to confirm this approach.
I look upon this as a change for the better—at least it seems that sexuality will not be the central contest being fought over in the church. I do not expect a radical change within the church agenda on these matters, but I do expect a different approach, a more modern one, from a pope who knows the suffering of people.
I’d like the Catholic hierarchy to start looking at abortion as a social justice problem, because the majority of women who die from the consequences of illegal abortions are poor women. Likewise, the majority of women who have no access to contraception worldwide are poor. I can foresee Pope Francis turning his words into actions to foster a more open, inclusive, and merciful church. I do live in hope.
Will this pope bring the necessary change in order to reconcile the practice of millions of Catholics worldwide with the teachings of their church? Will Pope Francis bring a “new spring” to the church? The mud of Brazil, the home of Leonardo Boff, one of the creators of liberation theology, would be a fitting ground for these seeds of change to sprout.