Mammoth crowds are expected to greet Pope Francis when he celebrates Mass on Rio’s Copacabana beach today.
The Pope is to meet legions of young Roman Catholics on what is his first international trip.
They will be converging on Rio for the church’s World Youth Day festival.
More than a million people are expected to pack the white sands of Copacabana to celebrate Mass with Francis.
He also will visit a tiny chapel in a trash-strewn slum, and he also plans a side trip to venerate Brazil’s patron saint.
A poll from the respected Datafolha group published in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo said 57% of Brazilians aged 16 and older call themselves Catholic, the lowest ever recorded.
Just six years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI visited, a poll by the same firm found 64% considered themselves among the faithful. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Brazil, 89% listed themselves as Catholics.
Beyond the numbers who claim one faith or another is the huge gap in the level of participation in the different churches, a fervour factor that deeply troubles the Catholic Church.
In his few months as pontiff, the 76-year-old Francis has demonstrated an easy ability to connect with people, in particular with young Catholics, demonstrating humility and a warmth the faithful feel is genuine. Church leaders hope his Brazil trip will deepen that appeal.
Keeping to his example that the Catholic church must be humble, Francis carried his own black hand luggage as he boarded a special Alitalia flight from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport.
Playing out in parallel to the papal visit is political unrest in Brazil, where widespread anti-government protests that began last month have continued and are expected to take place right outside Rio’s Guanabara Palace, the seat of state power where Francis is to meet president Dilma Rousseff shortly after his arrival.
With the exception of gay rights groups and others angered by the church’s doctrine against abortion and same-sex marriages, the target of most protesters will not be Francis but the government and political corruption.
The pontiff is said to support Brazilians peacefully taking to the streets, and when he served as a cardinal in Buenos Aires he didn’t shy from conflict with Argentina’s leaders as he railed against corruption.
The Pope will likely avoid hot topics like abortion and same-sex marriages while in Brazil, and focus on his message that the church should put its attention on the poor and that clergy must lead a humble life.
The Catholic Church is not as active in politics in Brazil as it is in other Latin American nations, though it strongly opposes any efforts to loosen abortion laws and took part in the legal argument against civil unions when the matter was before the top court.