APARECIDA, BRAZIL — Pope Benedict XVI ended his first pilgrimage to the Americas much as he began it: with a searing attack on diverse forces, from Marxism and capitalism to birth control, that he believes threaten society and the Roman Catholic faith.
And in comment likely to generate controversy in Latin America, the pope said the New World's indigenous population, "silently longing" for Christianity, had welcomed the teachings that "came to make their cultures fruitful, purifying them." Many indigenous rights groups say the conquest ushered in a period of disease, mass murder, enslavement and the shattering of native cultures.
Turnout at his final Mass, held at Brazil's most popular religious shrine, was notably low, underscoring the very problem the pope came here to address: a Catholic Church in decline.
Wrapping up five days in the world's most populous Catholic country, the pope inaugurated a major conference of bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean, telling them they had to do a better job of grooming Catholics and building up the church.
"One can detect a certain weakening of Christian life in society overall and of participation in the life of the Catholic Church," he said.
The pope lauded "progress toward democracy" in the region but expressed concern about "authoritarian forms of government and regimes wedded to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded."
The Latin American media widely saw the remark as a jab at leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has frequently clashed with the church hierarchy and called Christ "the greatest socialist in history."
The pope came to this region to shore up a deeply divided church that is losing multitudes of followers to Protestant denominations, secularism and apathy. The trip also was seen as a test for a pope often considered Eurocentric and aloof to the more populous bases of his far-flung church.
On that score, he did not appear to have made much headway. Only about 150,000 people came to this rural town between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for Benedict's final Mass. The open-air celebration took place at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida, a shrine to a black Virgin Mary who is Brazil's patron saint.
The pope told the crowd that only faith in God and the church could give them hope: "Not a political ideology, not a social movement, not an economic system."
Flags from various Latin American countries dotted the crowd, which was boisterous but a fraction of what organizers had predicted. Nuns in dark habits held aloft icons of the Madonna, and families wore matching T-shirts blazoned with pictures of saints. And this being Brazil, there were plenty of bare midriffs, low-cut tank tops and spandex pants.
During Benedict's five days in Brazil, many watching him saw and heard not so much an embracing and accessible pontiff as the man he was before becoming pope: the dogmatic Joseph Ratzinger, a professorial theologian dedicated to guarding and purifying the faith. He stuck studiously to the fundamental message of his papacy, that unwavering love of God must form the basis of any endeavor.
It may be something of an irony that he came to a country with a reputation for hedonism to rail against sex, drugs and lax morals. Or maybe that was the point.
His exhortations to protect family life and return to the church will resonate with numerous Latin Americans who are dismayed at the erosion of tradition in the heavily Roman Catholic continent.
But for many here, Benedict remained a distant pope, his instructions unrealistic.
"We are not used to him yet," said Ana Cortes, 42, from Monte Patria, Chile, who came to see the pope and preserved fond memories of Benedict's charismatic predecessor, John Paul II.
"We see him as far away still," said Cortes, a mother of two who was wrapped in a large Chilean flag. "But I think in time his words will reach us."
"I don't think many people are listening to him," said her friend, Nilse Barraza, 47.
Augusto Dellava, 17, who came to the Mass from Montevideo, Uruguay, said good Christians should be able to relate to the pope. "He talks a lot about youths. We are the future of the church," he said. "He demands a lot from us. It's not easy, but it's worth it."
The 80-year-old pope did not focus much on poverty during this trip, nor did he orchestrate any of the grand gestures that endeared John Paul to his followers. When John Paul visited Brazil in 1980, he gave his gold cardinal's ring to the residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum he visited. Benedict did not go to a slum nor did he meet with poor people, save for the briefest of encounters outside the Sao Paulo cathedral.
Speaking to the bishops on Sunday, he said the "preferential option for the poor" was implicit in faith in Christ, adding that the people of the region "have the right to a full life, proper to the children of God, under conditions that are more human" and free from hunger and violence.