Pope Francis addresses millions over Brazil's 'loss of faith'

Pope Francis addresses the congregation. Photo: APTN

Pope Francis drew an estimated three million Catholic faithful to Rio's Copacabana Beach for the final evening of World Youth Day, hours after he chastised the Brazilian church for failing to stem the "exodus" of Catholics to evangelical congregations.

Francis headed into the final hours of his first international trip riding a remarkable wave of popularity: by the time his open-sided car reached the stage for the vigil service on Saturday night, the back seat was piled high with football shirts, flags and flowers tossed to him by adoring pilgrims lining the beachfront route.

Catholic faithful crowd the streets and Copacabana Beach. Credit: Reuters/Sergio Moraes

On the beach, pilgrims staked out their spots on the sand, lounged and snacked, preparing for an all-night party ahead of the final Mass on Sunday. Many of those actually paying attention to the vigil had tears in their eyes, moved by Francis's call for them to build up their church like his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, was called to do.

Catholic faithful pray as Pope Francis celebrates mass at Copacabana Beach. Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

The vigil capped a busy day for the pope in which he drove home a message he has emphasised throughout the week in speeches, homilies and off-the-cuff remarks: the need for Catholics, lay and religious, 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.

In the longest and most important speech of his four-month pontificate, Pope Francis said:

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.

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.

Pope Francis greets the faithful as he arrives at Copacabana Beach. Credit: Reuters

According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil dipped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the church's share of the total population dropping from 74% to 65%. During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals skyrocketed from 26 million to 42 million, increasing from 15% to 22% of the population in 2010.

Pope Francis addresses the congregation. Credit: Reuters

Pope Francis offered explanations to this "exodus":

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.

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.

Despite the Pope's critical assessment of the state of the church in Brazil, reception to his visit in Rio has shown that he can draw quite a substantial crowd.

The city's mayor had estimated earlier that as many as three million people might turn out for Sunday's culminating mass.