While Francis’s visit to Brazil threatens to be overshadowed by his comments on gay priests uttered on the plane to Rome, it has generated an enormous outpouring of emotion and fervor. From the time that he stepped out of the plane, he has been mobbed by throngs of excited followers, straining to see and touch him. Francis has relished the opportunity to get close to the people which, among other things, has given his security detail veritable nightmares. What accounts for this tumultuous reception, particularly in the wake of so much popular frustration and anger expressed in street protests just a couple of weeks ago?
Judging by the testimony of many Brazilians who flocked to see Francis, it has a great deal to do with his impressive capacity to express empathy, care and intimacy, a capacity eloquently conveyed through speeches and symbols, such as his address upon arrival in which he humbly declared: “I have learned that to have access to the Brazilian people, it is necessary to enter through the door of their immense heart. So, allow me that in this hour I may delicately knock on this door. I ask permission to enter and spend this week with you.”
More importantly, Francis expresses a genuine embodied desire to be present, lowering the window of the car transporting him amid the multitude, kissing babies, hugging people with disabilities, walking the streets of Varginha in the cold rain. With a self-effacing humor, he told the crowd, “When I first decided to come to Brazil, I wanted to knock on every door and say good morning . . . ask for a glass of water, drink a coffee but not a shot of cachaça [a popular hard liquor].”
Without essentializing Brazilian culture, anthropologists such as Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and Roberto DaMatta have observed that Brazilians value very highly informality, the personal touch, the affective force and cordiality of friendship and kinship ties, and the intimacy of home as a space of human warmth, authenticity and safety against the competitive, impersonal, and cold world of the street. Drawing from his own background, Francis’s sermons and actions strongly resonate with these Brazilian “habits of the heart,” as sociologist Robert Bellah put it, particularly at time of widespread economic uncertainty and persistent social inequalities. One ecstatic young Catholic from Varginha put it well: “I think this pope is very different . . . . He hugs people. He’s from the people. This pope is a Brazilian.”
Francis’s empathy, care, and uninhibited physical expressions of intimacy stand in stark contrast to the conduct of Brazil’s political class, whose promises during the recent street protests rang hollow in light of their rampant corruption. With Francis, Brazilian people have the certainty that someone with authority is finally treating them as persons not merely as voters or consumers. So, when he speaks of hope, it is not perceived as empty, manipulative rhetoric.
Moreover, Francis’s willingness to touch and be touched by the people also demonstrates the limits of parish structure, which tends to be large, bureaucratic, and impersonal, making it difficult for the clergy to be fully engaged in the everyday of the faithful. In fact, he declared “I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures: because these need to get out!”
Francis went even further, hypothesizing with uncommon candor that the massive “exodus” of Catholics to evangelical Protestantism, particularly Pentecostalism, could be due to the fact that the Church is “too distant from [the poor’s] 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.” In contrast, Pentecostal churches offer not only intimacy and solidarity, but often deal with the concrete problems—whether it be illness, drug addition, domestic strife, or crime—that afflict the faithful. In these Pentecostal churches it is hard to be anonymous; they seek a holistic transformation of the self.
Much has been made of Francis’s call to the young people to “stir things up… to make a mess, to disturb complacency.” Francis also stated that “[n]o one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!” and he also critiqued the forcible “pacification” program advanced by the Brazilian government in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics, affirming that “no amount of pacification will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of it.”
It is clear, however, that Francis’s call to “revolution” is different from the on-going street protests. While the pope acknowledges the right of the people to protest in “an orderly, peaceful, and responsible fashion,” he refers, rather, to a revolution of the heart, one that can bring more faith, love, and solidarity to a world in which “young people who have lost faith in the Church or even in God because of the counter-witness of Christians and ministers of the gospel . . . So many young people who have lost faith in political institutions, because they see in them only selfishness and corruption.”
In other words, the call to revolution is primarily and fundamentally a call to evangelization. In this sense, there are clear continuities between Francis’s critique of the “culture of selfishness and individualism” and Benedict XVI’s and John Paul II’s denunciations of the “dictatorship of relativism” and the “culture of death.”
If the visit to Brazil is an indication, the genius of Francis might be his ability to bridge two powerful pastoral approaches that have been at odds with each other in the Global South, a feat that eluded his two predecessors. He has taken the preferential option for the poor, which is central to progressive Catholicism—minus its political implications and in-depth analysis of the social roots of injustice—and blended it with the embodied intimacy and cathartic affectivity of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement—but without the showiness that often accompanies this movement. It is a charismaticism read through “the grammar of simplicity,” following the Jesuit tradition. Think of it, crudely speaking, as the papal equivalent of a Reagan Democrat.
The long-term pastoral impact of this synthesis is an open question, but, at least for the moment, it seems to have turned the tables on Pentecostalism’s aggressive proselytism. In his walk in Varginha, Francis stopped in front of a temple of the Assemblies of God and, to the pastor’s surprise, prayed with the members of the congregation who were at the door. They even asked him to bless them. This is a potent example of what Francis means by his call for young Catholics “to take the church to the streets.”