APARECIDA, Brazil (Reuters) - Pope Benedict decried the growing gap between rich and poor in Latin America on Sunday but told priests to stay out of politics even as they fight for social justice.
The Pope also urged Latin American bishops to do more to confront challenges threatening the Roman Catholic Church, including the defection of millions of followers to Protestant churches.
His call to action came at the end of a five-day visit to Brazil, where he tried to revive the church’s waning influence in Latin America five centuries after priests stood alongside the first Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
Earlier on Sunday, the Pope led about 150,000 people in a traditional mass outside the huge Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida in this holy shrine city.
The turnout was far less than the 500,000 people expected by church officials — an indication of the difficult times it faces in the world’s largest Catholic nation.
The Pope said both Marxism and capitalism had done great harm in Latin America, home to nearly half of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, and that people were losing their dignity through “drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness”.
“The peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean have the right to a full life, proper to the children of God, under conditions that are human, free from the threat of hunger and from every form of violence,” he said in opening a two-week conference of bishops from across the region.
His commitment to the poor was likely to be welcomed by priests working in Latin America’s notorious slums, although he again warned against mixing pastoral work with ideology.
The Pope, who led a Vatican crackdown on the Liberation Theology movement of left-wing priests in the 1980s, said Marxist systems had brought destruction on economies, the environment and the human spirit.
He also offered a view of the church’s history in Latin America that may prove to be controversial.
Indigenous peoples welcomed the arrival of European priests as they were “silently longing” for the Christian faith, and embracing it purified them, the Pope said in the last major speech of his trip before leaving Brazil on Sunday night.
Many Indian groups believe the conquest brought them enslavement and genocide.
Throughout his visit, the 80-year-old Pope demanded that Catholics return to strict family values and shun promiscuity. He also stressed firm opposition to abortion and birth control.
The message received a mixed reception in a country known for its enthusiastic attitude toward sex and where a daily struggle to survive is the main worry for many families. But in the crowd stretched out before the basilica for Sunday’s mass, there was approval.
“This is a blessing. He spoke to young people and he reinforced family values. That is so important,” said Nathalia Dos Reis, a cleaner from the nearby town of Guaratingueta.
The bishops’ conference will over the next two weeks grapple with problems ranging from a shortage of priests to the growing appeal of Protestant groups.
They will also map out priorities for missionary work and social action in a region blighted by poverty, corruption, drug trafficking and violence.
While Latin America’s church has become more conservative since the 1980s, some still defend Liberation Theology and say the Catholic hierarchy must do more to help the poor.
“The right to liberation is in the Bible,” Bishop Erwin Krautler from Brazil’s Amazon state of Para told Reuters.
“We often forget that the poor and landless have a right to a dignified life.”