MAPUTO, Mozambique — Young men and women wearing the words “Pope Francis” on their backs and “Catholic Youth” on their sleeves packed the bleachers of a stadium in Mozambique on Thursday and listened to Francis tell them, “You are important!”
“You need to believe it,” Francis said to the raucous crowd at the Maxaquene Pavillon, in the capital, Maputo, where young Africans regaled him with songs and skits. “Not only are you the future of Mozambique, or of the church and of humanity. You are their present!”
In the stands, Francisco Alfeu Chixango, 23, nodded and said that just seeing Francis would give the entire African church a shot in the arm.
“The pope being here,” he said, “will help the church to grow.”
The continent has already become the globe’s most fertile ground for the faithful and priests who are disappearing from Catholicism’s historic centers in Europe. The Roman Catholic Church continues to expand in Africa, even as it faces competition from increasingly popular Pentecostal and evangelical movements.
The pope’s six-day visit to Africa, with stops in Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, is an opportunity for him to come face to face with the future of his church.
By opening to Africa and appointing more of its bishops as cardinals who will pick his successor, Francis has shown that he sees the traditional “peripheries” of the church as central to its future and its universality.
Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who preferred a small but concentrated church, Francis is willing to be more inclusive to be more relevant. And Africa, where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25, offers his church room for growth.
“Africa is the most rapidly growing part of the church,” said Sean Callahan, the president of Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church in the United States. It is also providing what he called a “reverse evangelization.”
“In the past, it was Europe sending priests to Africa,” he noted. “Now it’s Africa sending priests to Europe.”
On Thursday, Francis visited the Animators Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where he told the country’s bishops, priests, nuns and seminarians to keep looking forward.
“The promised land is before us, not behind us,” he said, while encouraging them to inspire, not browbeat, their people. “Instead of proclaiming Good News, we announce a dreary message that attracts no one and sets no one’s heart afire.”
A study by the Pew Research Center, published in 2017, estimated that 40 percent of Christians will live in Africa by 2060. Another Pew study, from 2018, noted that Africans are especially active in their churches, with more than 60 percent saying they attend church at least once a week.
The population is booming across the continent, and so is Catholicism. According to the Vatican’s Book of Statistics, the Catholic Church — which now numbers 1.3 billion people — owes its global growth in recent years to Africa and Asia.
While Europe lost 240,000 faithful between 2016 and 2018, Africa registered the most growth, with 6.3 million more Catholics. The same survey found that the total number of priests in the church decreased by a few hundred to 415,000, with the major erosion also in Europe, which lost about 2,500 priests in those years. But Africa, with 1,200 new priests, and Asia, with 1,300, picked up the slack.
Antonio Juliasse, the auxiliary bishop of Maputo, said that the church in Mozambique, like the country, was poor and often lacked the funds to provide services without outside help.
At the same time, he said, it had strength in numbers and fervor, and the packed seminaries and young people at the churches suggested a bright future.
“The church here has got more life,” he said. “You see more kids and young people involved in prayer and activities, a growing number of priests and nuns. That is different compared to Europe.”
Riccardo Guiamba, 22, one of the Catholic Youth delegation who watched Francis in the stadium, agreed.
“The Catholic Church here has lots of events and lots of ways of talking to people who don’t go to church, to bring them in,” he said.
Bishop Juliasse attributed that faith to a lack of distractions from material wealth, allowing Africans to focus on faith. But he said that evangelicals, Pentecostals and others with new rituals designed “for their own profit” were increasingly competing for their attention.
Catholic leaders have planned meetings on how to address the crowded religious marketplace, he said. “We are aware of this situation, and we need to deal with it.”
Since 1970, the percentage of African Protestants has doubled to nearly 30 percent of the population, or about 340 million people, according to Pew. That compares with about 170 million Catholics in sub-Saharan African, according to Pew.
“There are a lot, like a lot, of evangelical churches right now,” said Wazilleyn Barbosa, 15, who, like her mother, converted from Catholic to evangelical, following her father’s lead.
She said that the pope and his “beautiful” message were for all Christians as she watched him in the Maxaquene Pavillion.
“Being Catholic is about tradition,” she said. “It’s what your grandparents or your aunts and uncles were. But right now, everybody is going to the evangelical churches.”
In an email, Paul Gifford, author of the book “Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa,” attributed that sharp rise in Protestants in part to Pentecostals adapting better to African cultures and addressing the need for explicitly spiritual rituals.
The Catholic Church, he wrote, “frowns on” such adaptation and has a habit of emphasizing aid over transcendence. The church in Africa, he said, “has turned itself into a massive NGO.”
But there did not seem to be a lack of spirituality or enthusiasm in Maputo. Teenagers in blue “Volunteers for Pope Francis” shirts ran beside his motorcade, and tens of thousands of people, many calling the pope’s name, lined the streets.
Some church officials said that Africa’s receptiveness to Catholicism was increasing because government corruption has eroded faith in secular institutions and created a thirst for something, and something absolute, to believe in.
In Africa, “there is more willingness, even in traditional religions, there is more readiness to accept the absolute,” said Bernardo Suerte, a priest from Mozambique who works in Radio Vatican’s Portuguese section. “That still exists in Africa.”
But while Africa may be the hope for the church’s future, its brand of conservatism is not necessarily the Catholicism that Francis promotes.
Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea has emerged as a leading critic of Francis and a hero to populists and conservatives in the hierarchy, in part for his opposition to migration to Europe.
Clergy “bewitched” by politics, he told a French magazine this year, had misinterpreted the Gospels to defend migrants. “It is better to help people flourish in their culture than to encourage them to come to a Europe in full decadence,” he said.
At the airy cathedral in Maputo, the Rev. Estevao Antonio Pango, watched Francis along with hundreds of other priests, nuns and seminarians.
“If Europe was proud of having evangelized Africa, now God permits Africans to evangelize Europe,” he said.
He entered the seminary to become a priest, he said, with lots of friends when he was 17. He hoped that because of the pope’s visit, “there will be many more.”