Pope Francis's warm style wins over Latin Americans

With compassionate words and a clear social message, Pope Francis was earning points for the Catholic Church in the world's most populous Catholic continent as he visited Brazil.

On his first foreign trip since his election in March, the pontiff was returning to the style he favored while he served as Buenos Aires' archbishop: direct contact with crowds, jokes, impromptu gestures and listening to all who approach him.

The 76-year-old Argentine was clearly delighted to be back on his native continent, which is home to 40 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics -- and people here seemed equally receptive to his presence.

When he arrived in Rio Monday, his little Fiat car was repeatedly swarmed by throngs of well-wishers in the city center.

Despite security concerns among his entourage, a smiling Francis lowered his car's window to shake hands with hundreds of pilgrims.

Over the past five days, through nonstop television coverage of the visit, the pope has strengthened his popularity across the region, winning people over with his humble gestures.

His German predecessor, Benedict XVI, was respected, but unlike Francis, he did not fire up crowds in Latin America.

He was seen as too European and was criticized for neglecting the region, making only two visits during his eight-year papacy.

"Benedict XVI was cerebral; Francis is a man of contact," said Joao, a young Franciscan friar.

"He is the pope next door," Joao said, adding, it was just what the church needed.

Francis has also sent clear social and political messages during his visit.

In a speech Thursday, the pontiff urged young Catholics to shun the trappings of materialism and put Jesus Christ at the heart of their lives.

He insisted that the "pacification" of slums -- under which Rio police restored security by forcibly evicting drug gangs -- will not work unless it is coupled with social inclusion of the poor.

And he waded into Brazil's tense political and social debate over corruption and social injustice that erupted into massive protests when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets last month to demand an end to corruption and better public services

Yet Francis was careful to offer encouragement, praising Brazil's success in reducing poverty and taking pains not to take sides in the social turmoil.

Many priests and church people have been delighted by his message, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said, recounting that "nuns in a convent got all excited" in the pope's presence during the visit to Aparecida.

"Each one of them insisted on being photographed with the pope, whom they hugged," he said with a smile.

Francis also toured a shantytown and hugged a former drug addict in a Rio hospital.

The love of Christ, the pope explained, was something "concrete" for Saint Francis of Assisi "when he embraced a man with leprosy" because "this brother, suffering and excluded, was a mediator of (God's) light."

Such words signal a marked difference for a Catholic church perceived as arrogant and distant by many Latin Americans that have been lured by Evangelical Protestant churches.