in Rome POPE John Paul II this week lambasted Brazil's ruling elite for "stifling the will of the poor" but at the same time rapped over the knuckles radical clergy trying to redress economic and social imbalance in the country for their methods.
Calling for sweeping agrarian reform to help iron out "intolerable individual and social distinctions", the Pope told an audience in the northern Brazilian town of Sao Luis on Monday that the prevailing land ownership system had "no justification whatsoever and constituted an abuse before God and men".
And he praised the church in Brazil for its concern over the plight of the poor. "The high concentration of land ownership in Brazil demands great change," he said.
Meeting with President Fernando Collor later the same day in the capital Brasilia, John Paul pledged to help the poor in all developing countries by using his influence in the world to reduce the debt burden of third world governments.
He reiterated the theme at a meeting of 150 Brazilian bishops and 1,200 priests by saying that the foreign debt of countries like Brazil "could not be paid for by the hunger and misery of ordinary people".
However, as well as praising the church's witness, he warned the clerics present against "laicising" functions traditionally reserved for the priesthood and "adapting" the liturgy to suit local conditions in remote parts of the country.
Leading article, page 4 He also reaffirmed the need for clerical celibacy. At the synod on the priesthood in the Vatican last October it was revealed that the Pope had given official permission for two married laymen in Brazil to be ordained priests.
The Pope flew into Natal on Brazil's Atlantic coast last Friday, the 499th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World and the Feast of the Madonna Aparecida, the country's patron, at the start of a nine-day tour of the largest Catholic nation in the world.
On his arrival he prayed that his visit would help strengthen the position of Catholic church, putting an end to social injustice and the decline in church numbers.
Only 76 per cent of Brazilians now consider themselves Catholics, compared with 85 per cent at the time of John Paul's last visit eleven years ago. Rome observers have suggested that the Pope is aiming to halt the "drain" of Catholics to fundamentalist Protestant sects.
But Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, the primate of Brazil and a former Vatican official, said that although Protestant sects have claimed members from the Catholic church in recent years the "sect explosion" is a "passing phase" which will soon end of its own accord. He pointed out that there were still more than 120 million Catholics in Brazil.
Cardinal Moreira Neves said that the antedote to the indifference felt by some sections of Brazilian society to the Catholic church lay in a more profound doctrinal formation of the faithful. The church had to be ready to build bridges helping clergy and laity alike to come to terms with everyday life in Brazil if it was to win back members, he said.
It is hoped in Rome that as well as offering words of comfort to people living in Brazil's sprawling slums, the Pope's presence in the heartland of Latin American Catholicism will heal the deepening church divisions over its role in celebrations for next year's 500th anniversary of the continent's evangelisation and the discovery of America.
Many bishops in Brazil have expressed doubts about the wisdom of active church involvement in festivities marking the start of an era of evangelisation that brought with it mixed blessings for the native peoples of the continent, while others are keen to see the church to fore in the year's events.
John Paul's trip to Brazil is his 53rd overseas since his pontificate began in 1978. In the past 12 months the Pope has visited Portugal and his native Poland.