RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Pope Francis issued blistering, soul-searching criticism Saturday of the Brazilian church's failure to keep its flock from straying to evangelical churches, challenging the region's bishops to be closer to their people to understand their problems and offer them credible solutions.
In the longest and most important speech of his four-month pontificate, Francis drove home a message he has emphasized throughout his first international trip at World Youth Day: the need for priests and young Catholics to shake up the status quo, get out of their stuffy sacristies and reach the faithful on the margins of society or risk losing them to rival churches.
Francis took a direct swipe at the "intellectual" message of the church that so characterized the pontificate of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. He said ordinary Catholics simply don't understand such lofty ideas and need a simpler message of love, forgiveness and mercy.
"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," he said. "Without the grammar of simplicity, the church loses the very conditions which make it possible to fish for God in the deep waters of his mystery."
In the speech outlining the kind of church that this new pope wants, Francis asked bishops to reflect on why hundreds of thousands of Catholics have left for charismatic Pentecostal congregations that have grown exponentially in recent decades, particularly in Brazil's slums or favelas, where their charismatic message and nuts-and-bolts advice have been welcomed by the poor.
According to Brazilian census data, the number of Catholics dipped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the church's share of the total population dropping from 74 percent to 65 percent. During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals has risen from 26 million to 42 million, an increase of 15 percent to 22 percent of the population in 2010.
Francis offered a breathtakingly blunt list of explanations for the demographic shift.
"Perhaps the church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas," he said. "Perhaps the world seems to have made the church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions. Perhaps the church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age."
Francis asked if the Catholic Church of today still was able to "warm the hearts" of its faithful, if its priests took the time to listen to their problems and remain close to them, and act like a "mother" who not only gives birth to her children but cares for them.
"We need a church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy," he said. "Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of 'wounded' persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love."
The Vatican said Francis read the five-page speech in its entirety to the 300 or so bishops gathered for lunch in the auditorium of the Rio archbishop's residence, and noted that the talk was both the longest and most important to date of Francis' pontificate. He will issue a similarly lengthy and important speech on Sunday to the bishops of Latin America, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
The Argentine pope began his day with a Mass in Rio's beehive-like modern cathedral where he exhorted 1,000 bishops from around the world to go out and find the faithful, a more diplomatic expression of the direct, off-the-cuff exhortation he delivered to young Argentine pilgrims on Thursday. In those remarks, he urged the youngsters to make a "mess" in their dioceses and shake things up, even at the expense of confrontation with their bishops and priests.
"We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities when so many people are waiting for the Gospel!" Francis said in his homily. "It's not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people."
Francis himself is imposing a shake-up in the Vatican's staid and dysfunctional bureaucracy, setting in motion a reform plan and investigations into misdeeds at the scandal-plagued Vatican bank and other administrative offices.
Francis' target audience is the poor and the marginalized — the people that history's first pope from Latin America has highlighted on this first trip of his pontificate. He has visited one of Rio's most violent slum areas, met with juvenile offenders and drug addicts and welcomed in a place of honor 35 trash recyclers from his native Argentina.
"Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning with the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church," he said Saturday. "They too are invited to the table of the Lord."
He carried that message to a meeting with Brazil's political, economic and intellectual elite, urging them to look out for the poorest and use their leadership positions to work for the common good. He also called for greater dialogue between generations, religions and peoples.
"Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option: that of dialogue," he said in a reference to the protests that have wracked Brazil in recent weeks. "A country grows when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, youth culture, artistic and technological culture, economic culture, family culture and media culture." He added that religion plays a critical and unifying role.
He delivered those remarks at Rio's grand municipal theater, where he was welcomed with a standing ovation and shouts of "Francisco" and "Viva o Papa!" (Long live the pope).
On a few occasions, he looked up at the gilded theater boxes almost in awe from the stage and seemed charmed when a few dozen young students of the theater's ballet school, all with their hair in buns, sat down around him. At the end of the event, the little ballerinas all swarmed around Francis for a hug and a kiss.
Also receiving papal embraces were a handful of Brazilian Indians, dressed in their traditional, bare-bellied garb who lined up to kiss his ring. One man gave Francis a feathered headdress, which he gamely wore for a few moments.
Claudina Rosa, a 32-year-old secretary from Minas Gerais state who waited outside the theater in a downpour to catch a glimpse of the pope, applauded his call for dialogue.
"We don't have any way of accessing our leaders. They don't listen to us at all, so it's excellent that the pope call for dialogue in this way," she said.
Later Saturday, Francis was presiding over an evening vigil service on Copacabana beach that is expected to draw more than 1 million young people.
He returns to Rome on Sunday after the final Mass.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield