SAO PAULO, Brazil After canonizing Brazil's first native-born saint and receiving a bracing dose of Brazilian-style religious fervor at an outdoor Mass, Pope Benedict XVI called on Friday for more forceful evangelization throughout Latin America to counter growing conversions to Pentecostal Protestant groups.
"No effort should be spared in seeking out those Catholics who have fallen away and those who know little or nothing of Jesus Christ," he told Brazilian bishops at Catedral da Se de Sao Paulo. "What is required, in a word, is a mission of evangelization capable of engaging all the vital energies in this immense flock."
About 140 million Brazilians regard themselves as Catholics, the largest Roman Catholic population in the world. But many do not attend Mass regularly, and those who identify themselves as Roman Catholic has dropped in less than a generation from nearly 90 percent of the population to about two-thirds, because of the Protestant advance.
The pope made his appeal in his characteristic way: He emphasized competing with the Pentecostal denominations first by meeting people's spiritual needs with a back-to-basics Catholicism centered on preaching Jesus' message. He did not stint on providing for people's social and material needs but suggested, as he has in the past, that the spiritual dimension was more important and was the true work of the church.
Even so, he took note of the dire circumstances in which millions of Latin Americans are mired, and signaled his agreement with what the church here calls a preferential option for the poor. When the people missionaries encounter "are living in poverty," he said, "it is necessary to help them, as the first Christian communities did, by practicing solidarity and making them feel truly loved."
Within the larger strategy of competing with Protestant denominations, the canonization of the Brazilian, Friar Antonio Sant'Anna Galvao, was a way of marking traditional Catholic territory and differentiating the church from its rivals.
Daily life in Brazil is permeated by the presence of saints, from the names of neighborhoods, businesses and cities, to the plaster statues found in corner bars and the posters and paintings hung in homes both humble and grand.
Fast-growing Pentecostal groups, however, strongly disapprove of the popular focus on saints, which they regard as a form of idolatry forbidden by the Bible.