If Roman Catholicism can be compared with a fleet, then the Brazilian church has long been its 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.