Pope Benedict wrapped up his five-day trip to Brazil celebrating Mass this morning at the sanctuary of Aparecida, followed up in the afternoon by a strong speech to open the fifth meeting of Latin American and Caribbean bishops, the main reason for his trip to this country. At the meeting which will continue until the end of May, bishops representing 22 countries will discuss strategy for the future of the church in this continent, home to nearly half the world's Roman Catholics.
The pope arrived in Aparecida yesterday after spending three days in Sao Paolo where he canonized the first native-born Brazilian saint, Friar Galvao, an 18th-century Franciscan who dedicated his life to charity and the poor. Throughout Pope Benedict's visit to the "continent of life and hope," the pope focused on reinforcing church doctrine on moral and social issues in his speeches.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida, the chosen site for the meeting of bishops from this region, is the most important Catholic religious site in Brazil. An average of more than 7 million pilgrims visit this shrine each year and it is one of the most popular shrines to the Virgin Mary in the world behind often visited shrines in Guadalupe, Mexico, Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal.
Aparecida is home to the huge red-brick basilica and the three-foot-tall statue of a black Virgin Mary called "Our Lady Who Appeared," the patron saint of Brazil. The statue was found in the river in the 18th century by four fishermen who were having no luck fishing. After they found the statue, they began catching tons of fish. Numerous miracles were subsequently attributed to the statue and with so many pilgrims flocking to the Aparecida site since then, a basilica was built and it was inaugurated as a shrine in 1955. Pope John Paul II consecrated the shrine on his visit here on July 4, 1980.
The modern basilica, which rivals the Vatican's Basilica of St. Peter in size, towers over the small town of dilapidated houses perched on a hill. A winding pedestrian bridge carries the faithful back and forth to and from the town which is brimming with stalls selling gaudy religious souvenirs, cheap knick-knacks and local fast food. There is also a shabby theme park called "Aparecida Magic, Cultural, Religious and Recreational Park" next to the shrine to entertain the large number of pious Brazilian families with small children that descend on the town for the holy feast day.
At this morning's Mass, the pope spoke to a crowd of about 200,000 people. Sixteen-year-old Marcella Garces drove down from Rio de Janeiro with her parents, arriving at 5 a.m. to get a good look at the new pope. "It is the first time he has come to Brazil and I wanted to see him close up," she told ABC News and she did. His popemobile passed right by her when he arrived at the site of the Mass this morning. "I am very happy, I saw him very well."
Not many in Brazil have had the chance to see this pope close up though, the pontiff's schedule included few events that brought him close to the people. Most Brazilians are proud that he chose Brazil for his first visit to Latin America but he is still an unknown "persona" here. Although Brazilians have been curious to see this new pope on his first trip to their continent, the crowds that have received him have been smaller and markedly less enthusiastic than the ones that greeted his predecessor Pope John Paul II in the past.
"You can tell this pope is more intellectual. Like kings, everyone has a different personality," said Hose Antonio Rios, a 61-year-old from Caracas. He was a bit disappointed the pope didn't go to see the poor people in the favellas during his visit. "I think it would have been good … but he did speak strongly to the bishops," he said and seemed satisfied with that.
Before leaving to fly back to his home in the Vatican, the pope delivered a strong speech in Portuguese and Spanish to nearly 300 bishops gathered here and summed up the challenges that face the church in this region. Four U.S. bishops are also attending the meeting. He outlined his ideas on how the church should regain its footing in Latin America, where it is losing parishioners at a rapid pace to Protestant and evangelical faiths. Addressing a number of social problems, he equated and condemned both Marxism and unchecked capitalism and reaffirmed the church's ban against contraception and abortion.
"In Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in other regions, there has been notable progress towards democracy, although there are grounds for concern in the face of authoritarian forms of government and regimes wedded to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded, and which do not correspond to the Christian vision of man and society as taught by the Social Doctrine of the Church. On the other side of the coin, the liberal economy of some Latin American countries must take account of equity, because of the ever increasing sectors of society that find themselves oppressed by immense poverty or even despoiled of their own natural resources," Pope Benedict told the bishops.
He added, "Are only material goods, social, economic and political problems "reality"? This was precisely the great error of the dominant tendencies of the last century, a most destructive error, as we can see from the results of both Marxist and capitalist systems. They falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God. Anyone who excludes God from his horizons falsifies the notion of "reality" and, in consequence, can only end up in blind alleys or with recipes for destruction."
Thirty-nine percent of the Catholics in the United States are Hispanics, mostly from Latin America. The strategy the bishops decide to follow for the future of the Roman Catholic Church in this region is expected to also have an impact on the American Catholicism.