The Herald Bulletin

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July 27, 2013

Pope's slum visit: Impressive but little impact

RIO DE JANEIRO — The day before Pope Francis visited Marizete Marques' slum, the 62-year-old retired maid cleaned her humble home until her hands hurt.

She wanted it to sparkle for the pontiff, despite the fact that like many shantytown residents, she's not even Catholic.

Marques had already converted from the Catholicism she was born into to an evangelical congregation, following many residents in the Varginha slum, an impoverished sliver of land between two putrid waterways full of raw sewage. For the past decade she's been an active member of her local Assembly of God church, attending services, prayer groups and other functions six days a week.

While Brazil remains the world's largest Catholic country, the number of Catholics here dwindled in recent decades as legions of mostly poor people left the church for Pentecostal and evangelical congregations that are seen as offering concrete, hands-on help in improving their lives. In 1960, 90 percent of Brazilians were Catholics, according to census data. Today, Catholics account for just over 60 percent of the population in this country of 195 million.

Observers said that Varginha, which has four evangelical churches and two Catholic ones, was strategically chosen as the site of Thursday's papal visit in a bid to help staunch the tide of conversions.

But while local residents, Catholic and evangelical alike, said that Francis' visit was a big success, bringing out an enthusiastic crowd of thousands despite a cold rain, they also said it would take more than his quick trip to slow the growth of the Pentecostal congregations.

The pope no longer plays any role in Marques' spiritual life, but she said she was thrilled about the visit, which saw Francis visit a local Catholic church, make a speech on a rain-soaked soccer pitch and pay a courtesy call to a family home.

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