Pope begins Brazilian visit
Hopes to energize shrinking Catholic population
October 2, 1997
Web posted at: 9:09 p.m. EDT (0109 GMT)
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (CNN) -- Thousands of people lined the streets of Rio de Janiero Thursday to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul II as he began a four-day visit to the world's largest Roman Catholic country.
Walking slowly, his white hair and cassock blowing the wind, the frail 77-year-old pontiff was greeted at the airport by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He was then flown by helicopter to a naval base downtown, where he began a journey through the city streets in his "popemobile."
He was to retire for the night at the residence of Rio's archbishop and have a private meeting with Cardoso Friday morning.
In a statement made at the airport at the beginning of his 80th papal trip abroad, John Paul said he hoped Brazil's religious heritage would help its rulers find a solution to the problems of poverty and children living on the streets.
"The unequal and unjust distribution of economic resources, which generates conflict in the cities and in the countryside ... (and) the problems of abandoned children in the big cities, are a challenge of enormous proportions for those who govern," he said.
The pope is in Brazil to preside over the Second World Meeting with Families, which has brought pilgrims to Rio from around the world. But local Catholic leaders are also hoping that his visit can energize a church fighting to maintain its religious dominance in Brazil.
Two decades ago, almost all Brazilians described themselves as Roman Catholic. Today, the number if 80 percent and shrinking -- and less than a quarter of those bother to go to Mass.
A recent poll done by one of Brazil's major newspapers shows that, of the Catholics interviewed, most favor birth control and the marriage of priests, and don't condemn sex before marriage -- all ideas vehemently opposed by John Paul and the church.
The Vatican said the pontiff would reaffirm traditional church teachings during his visit.
Also cutting into the ranks of Catholics are evangelical Protestant churches, which are booming by appealing to the poor with the message that they can improve themselves in the here and now, rather than waiting for the hereafter. Powerful African-based religions, such as Candomble, have also attracted millions of followers in this multi-ethnic country.
In his first statement in Brazil, the pope paid tribute to Brazil's indigenous peoples and those of African origin, saying they had contributed to creating the nation's sense of "family, respect for ancestors and the intimacy of family life."
Unlike his previous visits in 1980 and 1991, John Paul, who has been increasingly frail in recent years, will have a light agenda. Officials have even built an elevator to take him to the top of an altar specially built for an open-air Mass on Sunday.
Rio de Janeiro Bureau Chief Marina Mirabella and Reuters contributed to this report.