RIO DE JANEIRO—Thousands of young Catholics streamed into this seaside city anticipating the expected arrival on Monday of Pope Francis, who is making his first major overseas trip as pontiff to a country convulsed lately by mass student protests and seen as crucial to the future of the church.
Born in neighboring Argentina, the 76-year-old Jesuit is the first Latin American pope and many here are treating the trip as his triumphant homecoming to a region that now accounts for some 39% of Catholics world-wide. Hawkers along Copacabana beach, where an enormous stage was going up, sold bright yellow Brazil soccer jerseys with “Francis” on the back.
“A lot of people decided to come because the pope is Latin American,” said Cesar Jaya, a 20-year-old Ecuadorean Catholic who had just arrived in Brazil, and was posing for photos with friends and an Ecuadorean flag on Copacabana beach. “It’s our continent, he’s our pope.”
The enthusiasm inspired by Pope Francis was easy to see along Copacabana on Sunday. But this Brazilian city famous for its giant statue of Jesus looking down from a cliff-top also underscores the challenges facing the church in Latin America, and specifically Brazil—long known as the world’s biggest Catholic country.
Evangelical Protestant groups have made big inroads, and the country has become more secular amid economic growth. A Datafolha poll released Sunday showed that 57% of Brazilians call themselves Catholic today, compared with 75% in 1994.
“It’s a bit strange for someone my age to go to Mass—all I see are old people,” said Luisa Marazzi, a 16-year-old Brazilian Catholic who made a 10-hour road trip with her father to Rio for the event. “The problem has been the lack of young leaders, and even the language they use in church, sometimes it’s hard to understand.”
Still, as a process of secularization in Europe deepens, experts say, developing regions with faster growing populations such as Latin America and Africa hold the best promise of renewed growth for the Church.
Catholicism is shifting away from Europe and toward the south, to Latin America, Africa and Asia, said Luis Lugo, who studies religion and public life at the Pew Research Center.
Pope Francis’s trip marks the Church’s efforts to rejuvenate parishes. Some 1 million pilgrims, mainly youths from Brazil, Argentina, Peru and other Latin American nations are expected to pour into Rio for a week of events, mostly around Rio, jointly referred to as “World Youth Day.” The Vatican plans to beam high- definition coverage around the globe with three satellites, Vatican officials said.
By Sunday, the young Catholic pilgrims in Rio were giving the city the air of a festival. Groups of young Catholics at Rio’s airports and along Copacabana strummed guitars and sang religious songs.
Many carried sleeping bags and are expecting to camp on the floor at local churches and schools, or in the open field outside Rio where the event’s final Mass will be held on Sunday.
The church’s youth outreach was scheduled well before Francis was elected pope in March. In June, Brazilian students took to the streets in nationwide demonstrations against everything from entrenched corruption to overspending on stadiums for next year’s soccer World Cup, to be held here. Though the protests have mostly died down, groups are still gathered outside the home of Rio Governor Sergio Cabral, the scene of fierce clashes with Rio police last week.
“The pope is arriving at a time when the region seems to be looking for leaders, for new voices,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
Francis’s history of criticizing corruption while Archbishop of Buenos Aires, plus his avowed humility, appeared to be resonating. Catholics on Sunday chatted about photos released of the sparse room and single bed Pope Francis will use in Rio, and his removal of the bullet resistant glass used on the Papal jeep since Pope John Paul II was shot and injured in 1981.
“What I love about Pope Francis is his message about service to poor people,” said Mr. Jaya. “This pope likes to talk to the people,” said Andrea Salina, a 22-year-old student, who was also on Copacabana on Sunday.
All the same, the religious were in the minority. A group of nuns in beige dresses were almost hard to pick out in the teeming throng of surfers and sunbathers who crowd the beach most weekends. A sand artist nearby summed up the contrast, sculpting a woman in a bikini looking up quizzically at a cross.
But the arriving Catholics made their mark on the beach scene all the same. As the sun started to set, a group of Catholics began preparing to hold a mass by the rocky Arpoador point that marks the end of Copacabana.