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. Trevor Bryant of Flagstaff, AZ

    i am not religious in the slightest, and in fact, HATE religion. but i have to say, this pope frank makes me want to convert. He's a good guy, a good leader with reasonable ideas for once. CERTAINLY not old guard... can't belive i am even saying this..... but.... long live Pope Frank!

    July 30, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  2. Al

    Of course the Pope doesn't condemn 'gay' lifestyles.......gay priest are OK by the Catholic Church.....

    July 29, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  3. CNNisAhoax

    Watch this please CNN is hoax news! America wake up! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdK26vO6wtQ&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    July 29, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  4. Aknrea

    The pope just said something that is completely against the bible and its teachings. Lev 18:22
    The catholic beliefs are not within the bible standards. We should live by the bible, not by a group of people who says what pleases everyone.

    July 29, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • ced

      you're really small minded...

      July 29, 2013 at 9:37 am |
    • Sidnei (Brasil)

      To Aknrea: where belief is that within the biblical standards, one website?
      (Para Aknrea: qual a crença que está dentro dos padrôes bíblicos,site uma?)

      July 29, 2013 at 9:39 am |
    • Pete

      "The pope just said something that is completely against the bible and its teachings. Lev 18:22"

      The fact you are quoting Leviticus demonstrates you don't know the bible at all. Do you even know why that book is titled that? Probably not nor do you know why xtians don't follow the teaching in it either or that even Christ didn't follow it.

      July 29, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  5. john white

    He is from Argentina, so he is supposed to be friendly and outgoing. He is Latin with immigrant blood, as is the case with half of Argentina's population.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:16 am |
  6. Cortanis

    I wonder how much of this is a public face. People his age don't usually have that much energy. He should really keep that in mind and make sure he doesn't burn himself out.

    July 29, 2013 at 1:59 am |
  7. bp

    Anybody would be an improvement over the last 2 popes, who were stuck in a medieval mindset and advocated continued discrimination by the Church against women. In the latter case, a little touch of Nazism never hurt anyone. Good thing popes are infallible, said Galileo the heretic.

    "It is necessary for salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff." – Pope Boniface VII.

    July 29, 2013 at 1:53 am |
    • ced

      "a touch of nazism"... You should try to find something else to attack Benedict XVI. Your historical background seems very poor...

      July 29, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  8. Trey

    I'm very proud of this man. Thank you.

    July 29, 2013 at 12:55 am |
  9. LouAZ

    Men in DRESSES !

    July 29, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  10. brian

    I have seen these silly pope articles for several decades now. The Vatican is like a skit on Saturday night live.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
  11. MoodyMoody

    Pope Francis seems very sincere in his desire to help people. However, I don't think he's really in charge at the Vatican; I believe he's a figurehead. Remember a couple of months ago he suggested that good non-Catholics might make it to heaven? The next day, the Vatican powers-that-be repudiated that comment. I believe that he would be happy to get rid of a lot of the treasures of the Catholic church, but he isn't allowed to. He's as innocent as a dove, but I don't know if he's as wise as a serpent.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
  12. mikeh420

    If the Brazilians are this "peaceful" for a visit of the Pope, imagine how it will be for the World Cup.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  13. Bob

    You wiped out my negative comment, because Father Beck and Cuomo the Devout Catholic couple probably didn't agree.

    Hopefully on CNN they'll actually tie the knot.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  14. Bob

    How sad that there are so many unemployed and the lack of services with the recent riots. I don't know what his message was, but I do know it cost the poor Brazilians $171 million – which he should have given out instead of squandering it.

    The Las Vegas staged Stations of the Cross shocking. Thank God Jesus Mary and Joseph are Jews, and were dead and buried 400 before the Catholic church churned them up as the biggest money making scheme, since Catholic Adolph Hitler designed his parents Catholic gravesite with Cross and the SS officiating at the ceremony.

    His euphoria glorifying himself will not help one Brazilian, just another day and a return to poverty. Let the Catholic Church give back the gold, the land, and the luxurious mansions they live in – and besides he doesn't even speak their language – Spanish is not spoken by Brazilians and Brazil is a big country, but it certainly is not Catholic ... more propaganda and of course more fundraising for those clergy guaranteed luxurious meals every day of their lives while they live in splendor and complain there are poor. God Help the Poor – the Catholic Church certainly is not ... but then these are just words. Where's the Cash: Padre!

    July 28, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Sired Bob...

      What difference does it make where the money flows when entrusting folks clamor steadfastly upon civil unity and no one person did make objectionable standoffs against the Pope’s visitation ..?

      Your somewhat demented dispute in saying such an emboldened mannerism equating Hitler and the Pontiff seems to be a stone throwing escapade of embittered proclamations having little effect upon this world’s masses that saw the Pope’s visitation to Brazil’s general populace enlightening and invigorating.

      I for one dare sense a new dawn arising yet time is needed in order to consider the consequential accountabilities of such an intended visitation…


      July 28, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
      • adamdocherty

        I hear English lessons are going cheap these days... you should take the opportunity 🙂

        July 28, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • Greg Tan

      always grandstanding,tell him to sell his crown jewels and give to the poor,all talk and no action.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
      • lionlylamb

        A good Sunday evening to you Greg Tan...

        Our world has come a very long way since Christ Jesus first stepped foot among our most ancient of generations... With all the freedoms and luxuries afforded common men, women and children nowadays in many rich nations, why are your harassing words of charities for the most poor being as a one-sided issue beleaguering the RCC or for that matter, any church that makes valiant attempts toward helping the most needy..? Where's your pocket change going to these days..? Rum and coke or soda pop or a T-bone?

        July 28, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • DCDANI

      I think you should get your facts straight first before commenting. As reported, Brazil spent $50+ million for his visit and NOT $171 million. Where did you even get your source? And you know what, it's not a Win-Lose situation. Just think of those HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE (3 million as reported) who stayed in hotels, ate at restaurants, bought souvenirs, rode public transportation, paid entrance fees to visit tourist spots – just imagine how the number of those people have helped boost the local tourism industry/economy in a week.

      Problem with people like you is that you guys are easy to comment as if you're really sure of what you're saying.

      July 29, 2013 at 12:09 am |
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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.