July 28th, 2013
08:56 AM ET

What we learned about Pope Francis in Brazil

By John L. Allen Jr., CNN

Rio de Janeiro (CNN) - We didn’t need Pope Francis’ trip to Brazil this week to grasp that the new pontiff, who’s set a tone of simplicity and love for ordinary people, is a hit.

Polls around the world show approval ratings that would be the envy of any politician or celebrity, while vast crowds show up in Rome for even his most routine activities.

What Brazil confirmed, perhaps, is that his act plays as well on the road as at home.

During his week in Brazil for World Youth Day, an international Catholic event, mob scenes erupted everywhere Francis went, despite cold temperatures and driving rain for much of the week.

On Monday, frenzied admirers almost hijacked his motorcade. On Wednesday a group of nuns shrieked and rushed the pope like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert, and on Thursday  he drew more than a million young people to a worship service on Rio’s Copacabana Beach. A Saturday prayer service drew 3 million people, according to organizers.

At one point, Francis greeted 30,000 young Argentines in town for World Youth Day, a gathering that turned this city into a virtual Argentinian colony. Given the fierce national rivalry between the two countries, one local pundit said that under any other circumstances, the presence of so many screaming Argentines in the streets of Rio would have been considered an act of war.

Beyond that, here are four things we learned about Pope Francis from his week in Brazil:

A sedate charisma

Francis was elected at 76, so he doesn’t exude the animal magnetism of the early John Paul II, the last pope to command this kind of popular affection.

Elected at 58, John Paul delivered dramatic gestures like the actor he once was. For instance, he would kiss the ground of whatever country he was visiting, something Francis didn’t do. John Paul would clap and stomp his feet during musical numbers, and at night he would pop out the window of his residence to tell jokes and boom out one-liners.

Francis has a more sedate charisma, allowing his smile, his genuine delight in meeting people, and his homespun wisdom to do the work.

During a visit to a Rio slum, for instance, he said the poor are often the most generous folk, quoting a Latin American proverb: “You can always add more water to the beans.”

Francis may be a rock star, in other words, but not the “pump up the volume” sort. Think Simon and Garfunkel, not the Rolling Stones – or maybe Taylor Swift, not Lady Gaga.

He’s changed the storyline

If proof were needed of how much Francis has changed the storyline about the Catholic Church, consider that he’d been in the global spotlight for five days by the time Friday night rolled around, and no one had even raised the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals until he did so himself.

Speaking at the end of a procession recalling Jesus’ carrying of the Cross, Francis said Jesus is united with all who suffer, including those who “have lost their faith in the church, or even in God, because of the lack of consistency of Christians and ministers of the gospel.”

Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a veteran of the Church’s struggles with the abuse scandals who was in Rio for the pope’s visit, said the scandals were “an aspect” of what Francis had in mind.

The veiled reference was a reminder of how much the scandals have hurt the Church. Yet the fact that they didn’t cloud Francis’ trip, as they likely would have for a different pope, was also a lesson in how much Francis has given the Church a new lease on life.

A savvy politician

Heading into the trip, there was fear that Brazil’s massive street protests in June might reignite. Aside from a few scattered incidents, that didn’t happen, and Francis seemed to navigate artfully though the political shoals.

The “Pope of the Poor” repeatedly called for greater attention to the needy, and on several occasions applauded the thirst for justice among young people.

During his visit to a Rio slum, he said that no “pacification” campaign can succeed without addressing the social conditions that breed misery – an indirect slap at recent crackdowns on violence in the slums by local police.

At the same time, Francis didn’t embarrass his hosts. He was gracious with Brazil’s embattled president, Dilma Rousseff. He dropped by Rio de Janeiro’s city palace on Thursday to pray over the flags for the 2016 Olympics, meaning that organizers can literally claim a papal blessing against complaints that splashy events such as the Olympics and the World Cup are a waste of money.

In the end, Francis offered a little something for everyone, without blurring his central message expressed in the slum visit: “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need.”

Energizer Bunny of a Pope

Finally, we learned that despite his advanced age, Francis has a seemingly boundless reserve of energy.

Even before he left Rome, he had trimmed the two days of rest planned for Benedict XVI to one, adding a 150-mile outing to Aparecida, Brazil, on Wednesday to visit a famed Marian shrine, and later in the day stopping by a Rio hospital that treats alcohol and drug addicts.

On the plane en route to Brazil, he stood for an hour to chat with each journalist covering the trip, then spent the rest of the flight talking to his Vatican aides and making notes. A spokesman said nap time had been planned for the pope, but he never used it.

Even on his alleged day off on Tuesday, Francis kept at it. He held a business meeting with a cardinal from Honduras, Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who’s in charge of a new council of eight cardinals from around the world helping the pope with Vatican reform.

At one stage, a Vatican spokesman confessed, “I’m happy we’re halfway through, because if [the trip] were any longer I’d be destroyed.”

Despite the grueling pace, Francis seemed as fresh at the end as at the beginning. Nor will things slow down anytime soon, since he’s already announced that he won’t take the usual papal break in August, but will stay on the job in Rome.

The “Energizer bunny” aspect of his personality should serve Francis well, because his bravura performance in Brazil notwithstanding, the Vatican is not going to reform itself.

John L. Allen Jr. is CNN’s senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Brazil • Catholic Church • Pope Francis

soundoff (493 Responses)
  1. Emery

    Man kind is so slow to learn. It`s all so very sad to me.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  2. Snowdog

    What scares me is that they love the Pope so much are they even thinking of God. The Pope is a sinful being just like the rest of us. We need to follow Jesus not the Pope.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  3. Ray Charles

    HE SOUNDS SO GREAT... just like a Rock Star only better.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  4. Jeff E.

    This Blog doesn't seem to be written by a person of faith but a person of incredible cynicism and this article is a thinly veiled attempt to reduce the Pope into a performer and his followers, the audience of a play. They should get honest with people and start calling this the Cynics Corner, not the Belief Blog.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  5. Opus

    His only purpose is to try and save the Catholic Den of Satan from inevitable bankruptcy. He will fail. Only pathetic,
    mindless sheep would belong to and support the world's largest organized crime ring.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  6. Derek

    Very happy to see a down-to-Earth pope who is humble and leads by example. Good move on the Catholic Church's part so far, it seems.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  7. Paul

    As an atheist, this is precisely the kind of pope that I don't mind seeing: his focus is on the individual's relationship with the world around us, rather than trying to get everyone to toe the party line. In that sense, his emphasis on humanitarian issues is remarkably similar to many atheists' beliefs. He seems like a good guy who genuinely wants to spread goodness and kindness. More power to him.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Joe

      Most Athiests I know are conceded people who think they are smarter than they really are. They like to put others down for their beliefs. Not saying that is the way you are. But many are like that.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:10 am |
      • Paul

        Fair enough, Joe, but I'd say the exact same thing about my Christian friends. There's an atmosphere of superiority in their midst that strikes me as just plain silly.

        July 28, 2013 at 11:14 am |
      • Richard Cranium

        What did the atheists concede?

        Pretty sure you meant conceited. When you are trying to insult people, spelling the insult correctly will make you look less like an idiot.

        July 28, 2013 at 11:20 am |
      • Andy

        "Many" or "Most"? Seems you've changed your stance in just a matter of a couple sentences.

        July 28, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Jen

      Don't get your hopes up until they start dealing with their numerous scandals. I trust them even less when they appear useful.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Emery

      The problem is there`s no good that comes from religion. In my book he`s just more of the same just packaged different is all.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • John Vance

      I agree. I'm not an atheist though I'm not religious either. He appears to offer a less high-and-mighty image of the Pope than have recent holders of the Chair. He seems like someone you could actually talk to about an issue and not get boiler-plate responses.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  8. Dan

    Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It's not going to happen!

    July 28, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  9. Steve

    God bless Pope Francis!

    July 28, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Pie

      That's not gonna happen.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  10. Steve

    God bless Pope Francis!

    July 28, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  11. DickPerry

    He's not pooping around..

    July 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  12. Puckles

    The Catholic Church is the den of Satan. It will not be long before it crumbles to the ground and all its followers with it.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  13. Tom

    Censorship test...

    July 28, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  14. John Vance

    It sounds trivial but Pope Francis sounds like a good guy. The RCC has immense problems with which it must contend. It's history of dealing with problems has not been promising (think Reformation and child abuse scandal) but this is typical of the blind hubris that frequently infects powerful organizations and people.
    Though not religious myself, I believe that religions can have a positive effect on human behavior – provided they keep the focus on human suffering and fear. A shepherd that becomes more focused on shearing the sheep than leading them to greener pastures abrogates duty in exchange for pleasure. You cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  15. KEv

    Inregards to this, Newtown or the Holocaust, and 9-11, I happily mind my own happy business and live a happy life 🙂

    July 28, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  16. Paul

    The Pope is a good public relations but his words are empty and without meaning just like what politicians say. His words are empty and the Bible calls the Catholic church the false prophet. The Catholic church is just a big corporation and the Pope is just the public relations, he is not the CEO. There are other powers in the Catholic church greater than the Pope.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Ryan

      Judging by your second line I assume then you're an Evangelical Protestant Christian.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Jim Englert

      God love you, too, Paul, you poor, sad, silly soul.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • Giggles

      So true, Paul. The CC needs to repent and turn from their false teachings and idol worshiping. Many are being lead by the BLIND leader and at the end, all of them will end up falling into a ditch.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  17. MaryM

    He is a good man. A Pope for the poor people

    July 28, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • Rodents for Romney

      Great. Now all ya gotta do it explain why anyone would need one of those at all.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:03 am |
      • MaryM

        Because, whether you like it or not, for a lot of poor people, religion is what gives them hope.

        July 28, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.