Pubdate: Mon, 14 May 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Author: Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer


Benedict Laments Lax Morals And Urges Bishops To Do Better In 
Building Up The Church. His Last Mass Attracts Only 150,000.

APARECIDA, BRAZIL -- Pope Benedict XVI ended his first pilgrimage to 
the Americas much as he began it: with a searing attack on diverse 
forces, from Marxism and capitalism to birth control, that he 
believes threaten society and the Roman Catholic faith.

And in comment likely to generate controversy in Latin America, the 
pope said the New World's indigenous population, "silently longing" 
for Christianity, had welcomed the teachings that "came to make their 
cultures fruitful, purifying them." Many indigenous rights groups say 
the conquest ushered in a period of disease, mass murder, enslavement 
and the shattering of native cultures.

Turnout at his final Mass, held at Brazil's most popular religious 
shrine, was notably low, underscoring the very problem the pope came 
here to address: a Catholic Church in decline.

Wrapping up five days in the world's most populous Catholic country, 
the pope inaugurated a major conference of bishops from Latin America 
and the Caribbean, telling them they had to do a better job of 
grooming Catholics and building up the church.

"One can detect a certain weakening of Christian life in society 
overall and of participation in the life of the Catholic Church," he said.

The pope lauded "progress toward democracy" in the region but 
expressed concern about "authoritarian forms of government and 
regimes wedded to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded."

The Latin American media widely saw the remark as a jab at leftist 
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has frequently clashed with the 
church hierarchy and called Christ "the greatest socialist in history."

The pope came to this region to shore up a deeply divided church that 
is losing multitudes of followers to Protestant denominations, 
secularism and apathy. The trip also was seen as a test for a pope 
often considered Eurocentric and aloof to the more populous bases of 
his far-flung church.

On that score, he did not appear to have made much headway. Only 
about 150,000 people came to this rural town between Sao Paulo and 
Rio de Janeiro for Benedict's final Mass. The open-air celebration 
took place at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida, a shrine to a 
black Virgin Mary who is Brazil's patron saint.

The pope told the crowd that only faith in God and the church could 
give them hope: "Not a political ideology, not a social movement, not 
an economic system."

Flags from various Latin American countries dotted the crowd, which 
was boisterous but a fraction of what organizers had predicted. Nuns 
in dark habits held aloft icons of the Madonna, and families wore 
matching T-shirts blazoned with pictures of saints. And this being 
Brazil, there were plenty of bare midriffs, low-cut tank tops and 
spandex pants.

During Benedict's five days in Brazil, many watching him saw and 
heard not so much an embracing and accessible pontiff as the man he 
was before becoming pope: the dogmatic Joseph Ratzinger, a 
professorial theologian dedicated to guarding and purifying the 
faith. He stuck studiously to the fundamental message of his papacy, 
that unwavering love of God must form the basis of any endeavor.

It may be something of an irony that he came to a country with a 
reputation for hedonism to rail against sex, drugs and lax morals. Or 
maybe that was the point.

His exhortations to protect family life and return to the church will 
resonate with numerous Latin Americans who are dismayed at the 
erosion of tradition in the heavily Roman Catholic continent.

But for many here, Benedict remained a distant pope, his instructions 

"We are not used to him yet," said Ana Cortes, 42, from Monte Patria, 
Chile, who came to see the pope and preserved fond memories of 
Benedict's charismatic predecessor, John Paul II.

"We see him as far away still," said Cortes, a mother of two who was 
wrapped in a large Chilean flag. "But I think in time his words will reach us."

"I don't think many people are listening to him," said her friend, 
Nilse Barraza, 47.

Augusto Dellava, 17, who came to the Mass from Montevideo, Uruguay, 
said good Christians should be able to relate to the pope. "He talks 
a lot about youths. We are the future of the church," he said. "He 
demands a lot from us. It's not easy, but it's worth it."

The 80-year-old pope did not focus much on poverty during this trip, 
nor did he orchestrate any of the grand gestures that endeared John 
Paul to his followers. When John Paul visited Brazil in 1980, he gave 
his gold cardinal's ring to the residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum he 
visited. Benedict did not go to a slum nor did he meet with poor 
people, save for the briefest of encounters outside the Sao Paulo cathedral.

Speaking to the bishops on Sunday, he said the "preferential option 
for the poor" was implicit in faith in Christ, adding that the people 
of the region "have the right to a full life, proper to the children 
of God, under conditions that are more human" and free from hunger 
and violence.

The pope blamed both capitalism and Marxism for removing God from 
life and dehumanizing society. The pope's views on Marxism are 
well-known, but his inclusion of capitalism in the same critique was 

Marxism left a legacy of economic and ecological destruction and 
"also the painful destruction of the human spirit," he said. By the 
same token, he added, capitalism widened the gap between rich and 
poor, "giving rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity 
through drugs, alcohol and the deceptive illusions of happiness."

Sunday's speech to the bishops was the centerpiece lecture of the 
Brazil trip. It kicked off the fifth General Conference of the Latin 
American Bishops, a 19-day policy meeting that is held approximately 
every decade.

As he has done frequently, the pope condemned abortion, gay marriage 
and "the facile illusions of instant happiness and the deceptive 
paradise offered by drugs, pleasure and alcohol."

He said priests had no business in politics but that Christian values 
should permeate political thought and leadership.

The pope dedicated only a small portion of his remarks to the 
shortage of priests in Latin America, a problem that church officials 
in Brazil consider to be especially acute. Priests are outnumbered by 
evangelical Protestant preachers 2 to 1, and vast swaths of this huge 
country are without bishops.

Benedict has used his homilies and speeches here to say that the more 
creative, folkloric, lively Mass often conducted in Brazil is 
permissible only as long as traditional doctrine and liturgy are 
followed. Some priests and lay people believe the way to save the 
Catholic Church in Latin America is to adopt the aggressive, rousing 
preaching practices of their Pentecostal rivals.

On the fringes of Sunday's Mass, a group of 25 theology students from 
a Brazilian university marched with pictures of "martyrs" who have 
not figured prominently in any of the pope's utterances. These 
included Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was slain while 
celebrating Mass in 1980, and Dorothy Stang, a U.S.-born nun who was 
killed in Brazil two years ago defending indigenous rights against 
loggers. The students' banner declared they were the "church of the 
option for the poor and the excluded."

As with Sunday's Mass, attendance and fervor at most of Benedict's 
appearances here were muted for a papal visit to a predominantly 
Catholic country. By way of contrast, the annual "March for Jesus" by 
evangelicals in Sao Paulo attracts at least 1.5 million people.

Despite that, some analysts said the exposure of the Brazilian public 
to Benedict would help make him a more familiar and appreciated figure.

"The country knows a new image of the pope, an image they didn't know 
before," Fernando Altemeyer, a theologian at the Pontifical Catholic 
University in Sao Paulo, told Folha Online, a Brazilian newspaper website.

But others suggested the gulf may be too wide for this cerebral pope to narrow.

"There is this real disconnect between what the pope says and the 
reality among Catholics in Brazil," said David Fleischer, a political 
scientist at the University of Brasilia.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman