A Pope for the Poor

Will Francis' personal humility and focus on poverty help revive the church's fortunes on his home continent?

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STEFANO SPAZIANI

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The ongoing reform of the Vatican's bank--the Institute for Works of Religion, known by its Italian acronym, IOR--helps make the case for change as the Holy See has allowed itself to be policed. Italian authorities arrested a senior monsignor, Nunzio Scarano, for allegedly planning to smuggle more than $25 million into Italy on a private jet. Law-enforcement reports described the monsignor's opulent apartment in the southern Italian city of Salerno, including expensive religious art and paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and Marc Chagall. Benedict initiated the reforms--including greater transparency for IOR and its unpublished assets as well as adherence to accepted rules of accounting--but Francis may reap the benefit if they bear fruit. It is a first and critical step in the formidable task of reforming the byzantine Vatican bureaucracy, which is full of entrenched privileges that predate Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The Latin American Challenge

Francis may have a better handle on his global challenges. Brazil could be the perfect stage to show off his skills and proclivities. His visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida will be a reminder of his role in a 2007 regional bishops conference there. He was one of the principal authors of its key document, one that condemned "the greed of the market" and championed communal prerogatives over individual rights. While the Vatican has kept quiet about the recent protests in Brazil's cities, the senior Cardinal of the country has not. "We're not used to seeing mass movements including young people," said São Paulo's Archbishop Odilo Scherer. "People decided to make their voices heard in the streets. This should be interpreted by the political class." Archbishop Orani João Tempesta of Rio told Brazilian TV that young people "want a new Brazil, one that is more just and socially conscious. That agrees with what we, the bishops, are also looking for." He told TIME of the Pope's visit, "Because he himself is Latin American, there is a sense among the bishops here that he will speak to their specific concern."

If Francis is to reaffirm his church's primacy on the continent, he has to make that kind of inspirational inroad among the youth. Brazil has 10% of the world's Catholics. But its internal demographics have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. From 1991 to 2010, the proportion of Brazilians who identified themselves as Catholic dropped from 83% to 68%, while the proportion of Protestant evangelicals--fostered by televangelism and new media--grew from 9% to more than 20%.

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