Pope Francis—the first Latin American to head the Catholic Church—arrived in Brazil on Monday to celebrate World Youth Day, a week-long international gathering of young Catholics initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985. While millions of Catholics have traveled to Rio de Janeiro to greet the Pope, he was also met on Monday night by a group of 1,500 demonstrators outside of Rio’s Guanabara Palace, where Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and hundreds of dignitaries greeted the Pope in the official welcome ceremony.
Brazil is still shaken by social unrest that saw hundreds of thousands of protesters demand an end to corruption and better public services last month, and many demonstrators are now criticizing the estimated $53 million that will be spent on security during the Pope’s visit. In anticipation of more protests this week, the Defense Ministry boosted the number of army, air force and navy personnel and rolled out what state officials called “the biggest police operation in (Rio de Janeiro’s) history.” Even so, security might be problematic as the Pope plans to ride through the center of the city in an open-air vehicle, instead of the traditional bulletproof popemobile.
Pope Francis’ visit also comes at a delicate time for the Catholic Church in Brazil. Though Brazil is home to the world’s largest Catholic community—an estimated 123 million—Catholicism has been challenged by the country’s surging Evangelical population in the past three decades. Today, about 65 percent of the total population—compared with 92 percent in 1970—identifies as Catholic. In contrast, the number of evangelicals has risen from 5 percent of the population in 1970 to 22 percent in 2010. Rio de Janeiro is the country’s least Catholic state, with 45 percent of the population identifying as Catholic, according to the newspaper O Globo.
The Pope’s weeklong visit has drawn over one million young Catholics to Rio de Janeiro. The pontiff will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida— Brazil’s top pilgrimage site. He will also tour the Varginha favela in Rio, meet young inmates and hold three public Masses. The theme of the July 23-28 World Youth Day is “Go and make disciples of all nations,” a saying that summarizes the Pope’s mission to reinvigorate Brazil’s Catholic community.