Pope Francis said Monday he was concerned about the future of an entire
generation of youths unable to find work because of the global economic crisis.
Speaking to journalists aboard his flight to Brazil, the pope said the economic situation could mean "we have the risk of having a generation that did not have work," Vatican Radio reported.
"Young people today are in crisis," the pope told reporters.
Francis added, "The possibility to earn one's daily bread, and gain personal dignity, comes from work," Italian news service ANSA reported.
The pope's remarks have particular relevance to Brazil, where he will take part in events marking World Youth Day. Joblessness among Brazilian youths has risen to 20 percent, the U.S. Agency for International Development says. In northern parts of the country, the unemployment rate among young would-be workers is 52 percent.
His concerns contrasted with a Twitter message he was "already full of joy" he sent as he left Rome on his first trip outside Italy since becoming the leader of the Catholic Church in March.
His itinerary calls for visits to various sights in Catholicism's most populous country.
"This is an important visit," the Rev. Valdir Lima told USA Today after celebrating mass in Rio de Janeiro Sunday. "We need renewal."
Evangelical Protestant groups have made big inroads in Brazil, and the country has become more secular amid economic growth.
Fifty-seven percent of Brazilians consider themselves Catholic, down from 75 percent two decades ago, a poll released Sunday by Datafolha, a Brazilian research company, indicated.
In 1980, when Pope John Paul II made the first visit by a pope to Brazil, nearly 90 percent of the population considered itself Catholic.
Protestants rose to 22 percent from 6 percent from 1980 to 2010.
Throughout Latin America, people identifying themselves as Catholic fell to 72 percent in 2010 from 90 percent in 1910, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in February.
Still, Brazil remains the world's largest Roman Catholic country and Latin America accounts for 39 percent of the world's Catholics.
Experts say developing regions such as Latin America and Africa, with fast-growing populations, hold the greatest hope of renewed growth for the church.
Francis, born in Argentina to Italian parents, is the first Latin American pope and the first Jesuit.
"A lot of people decided to come because the pope is Latin American," Cesar Jaya, a 20-year-old Ecuadorean Catholic, told The Wall Street Journal.
"It's our continent, he's our pope."
There is a homecoming feeling for the visit but security for the 76-year-old pontiff is a big concern, officials said.
The pope has a week of open-air events, including two mass celebrations on the 2.5 mile-long Copacabana balneario beach. The events are expected to attract up to 1.5 million people.
Francis planned to leave his bulletproof popemobile behind and ride through city streets in an open-topped vehicle.
The visit comes a month after Rio and other Brazilian cities had more than a million protesters take to the streets.
The protests, which started June 20, were initially over bus-fare increases but quickly expanded into anger over political corruption, police brutality, the high cost of living and huge public spending for the 2014 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament at the expense of education.
The protests have quieted down in most cities but continue in Rio where they sometimes end in violence.
Francis has endorsed the protests in general terms and was expected to convey sympathy for the protest demands and those involved in the movement this week.
"The pope will certainly have words about the issues the young people have raised, their dissatisfaction or searches, but also their great desire to participate in change," Sao Paulo Archbishop Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer was quoted by The New York Times as saying.
Francis intends to focus on the gospel of social justice he has said he wants to make the focus of his papacy, the Times said.
The pontifical visit was originally planned for Benedict XVI, Francis' predecessor, who announced the event at the end of the last World Youth Day two years ago in Madrid.
At Francis' request, the original itinerary was expanded to include a visit to Aparecida, site of Brazil's biggest shrine to the Virgin Mary.
It was also there, during a visit by Benedict in 2007, that Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, presided over the writing of a policy document presented to the pope on behalf of the Latin American Episcopal Conference.
The document emphasized social justice and evangelization.
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