RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (CNN) — In a stern speech delivered to Brazilian bishops on Saturday, Pope Francis chastised the church for losing many of the faithful to other denominations, saying they must work harder to be close to the flock and employ a “grammar of simplicity.”
“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 told the 300 bishops gathered for lunch.
The Vatican called it Francis’ longest and one of his most important speeches to date. And it sets the tone for what can be expected from the pontiff’s strategy for the Catholic Church as a whole.
Francis reiterated a familiar message, urging priests and higher-ups to get out their parishes and reach out to the people, especially those pushed to the margins of society.
Brazil has more Catholics than any other country, but the number has eroded in recent decades. According to a 2010 census, just 65% of the total population of 191 million considered itself Catholic, down from 74% in 2000.
In the same period, the percentage of Brazilians who considered themselves evangelicals grew from 15% to 22%.
On Saturday, Francis reflected on the causes.
“Perhaps the church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas,” he said.
“Perhaps the world seems to have made the church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.”
The pope arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Monday for the weeklong run-up to World Youth Day.
Before meeting with bishops on Saturday, he presided over mass at Rio de Janeiro’s Cathedral and then met with politicians and leaders of Brazilian society at the Municipal Theater.
The unpredictable pontiff even placed an indigenous headdress on his head briefly during the encounter.
In the evening, Pope Francis will return to Copacabana Beach where the main festivities are being held.
Friday night,some 1.5 million people turned out and the Pope lead them in prayer. Many camped on the beach overnight.
By Shasta Darlington