In his first full day in Brazil, pope Benedict XVI met for about 30 minutes with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at Palácio Bandeirantes, the São Paulo governor's office. For the surprise of the president's aides the pope didn't talk about abortion as was widely anticipated.
But the pontiff and Lula chatted about the importance of family and how Church and state can work together to build a peaceful society. They also discussed biofuels as a way to help African countries to reduce their poverty.
Other subjects approached: international solidarity, education, youth. The president's aides described the pope as "fascinated" by the talk.
Pope Benedict XVI arrived Wednesday, May 8, in the Brazilian city of São Paulo with a strong message against abortion for a five day visit to the world's most populous Roman Catholic nation. This is his first visit to Latin America since becoming Pope in April 2005.
Benedict who will inaugurate next Sunday an important Latin American bishops' conference, speaking in Portuguese, said he was certain that the bishops will reinforce "the promotion of respect for life from the moment of conception until natural death as an integral requirement of human nature".
Catholic officials have been debating for some time whether politicians who approve abortion legislation as well as doctors and nurses who take part in the procedure subject themselves to automatic excommunication under church law.
Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope was not setting a new policy and did not intend to formally excommunicate anyone, a rare process under church law that is separate from the doctrine of self-excommunication.
Before leaving Rome, Benedict said the exodus of Catholics for evangelical Protestant churches in Latin America was "our biggest concern".
But he said the spread of Protestantism shows a "thirst for God" in the region, and that he intends to lay down a strategy to answer that call when he meets with bishops from throughout Latin America in a once-a-decade meeting in the shrine city of Aparecida near São Paulo.
"We have to become more dynamic," he said. Evangelical churches, which the Vatican considers "sects," have attracted millions of Latin American Catholics in recent years.
According to a recent study, some 64% of Brazilians are Catholic, but this number represents a 10% fall compared to 10 years ago and contrasts with an upsurge in converts to evangelical churches.
The Vatican also has promised that Benedict will deliver a tough message on poverty and crime during his visit to Brazil, the world's most populous Roman Catholic country.
Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, visited Mexico and addressed Latin American bishops just three months after assuming the papacy. Benedict has waited two years for his first trip to a region with nearly half the world's 1.1 billion Catholics. But he denied being "Eurocentric" or less concerned about poverty in the developing world than his predecessors.
Benedict, who visited Brazil as then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1990, will celebrate several open-air masses. On Thursday, he is to address a youth gathering in the city's Pacaembu stadium and on Friday canonizes Brother Antonio Galvão, Brazil's first native-born saint, during a public mass. Then on Sunday, Pope Benedict is to open the bishops' conference.
The two-week forum will bring together almost 200 bishops and cardinals from across Latin American and the Caribbean to set out the Church's agenda and policies in the region for the coming years.
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