Pope, in candid speech, tackles Church ‘exodus’

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Pope Francis, in a stunningly candid assessment of the state of the Catholic Church, said on Saturday it should look in the mirror and ask why so many people are leaving the faith of their fathers.

Drawing a reported 3 million faithful on the penultimate day of his trip to Brazil, Francis delivered a long address to the country's bishops in which he suggested elements of what could become a blueprint for stopping what he called an ''exodus.''

''I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?'' he said in a speech remarkable for its frankness about the hemorrhaging of the Church in many countries.

The Argentine pope, who is in Rio for a Catholic international jamboree known as World Youth Day, referred to what he called ''the mystery of those who leave the Church'' because they think it ''can no longer offer them anything meaningful or important.''

The Church has been losing members throughout the world to secularism and to other religions, including in Latin America, where evangelical groups have won over many converts.

He acknowledged that many people see the Church as a ''relic of the past,'' too caught up in itself, and a ''prisoner of its own rigid formulas.''

While he said the Church ''must remain faithful'' to its religious doctrine, it had to be closer to the people and their real problems.

''Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people's side, of doing more than simply listening to them,'' he said.

''At times we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people,'' he said.

In Brazil, the number of Catholics has dwindled rapidly in the decades since its once-rural population moved increasingly to major cities, where modern consumer culture has overtaken more provincial mores and where Protestant denominations, aggressively courting followers in urban outskirts and shantytowns, have won many converts.

''We need a Church capable of restoring citizenship to her many children who are journeying, as it were, in an exodus,'' he said.

The address to the bishops complemented an earlier homily in Rio's cathedral, where he urged priests worldwide to leave their comfortable surroundings to go out and serve the poor and needy.

''We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel,'' he said in the sermon of a Mass in Rio's cathedral.

Since his election in March as the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, Francis has been prodding priests, nuns and bishops to think less about their careers in the Church and listen more to the cries of those who are hungry to fill both material and spiritual needs.

''It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door and meet the people!'' he said.

Known as the ''slum cardinal'' in his native Argentina because of his austere lifestyle and visits to poor areas, Francis made a clarion call to clergy to take risks and go out among the faithful who need them most.

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