Pope Francis travels to Brazil on Monday on the first major international tour since he became the pontiff in March. He will stay in the country for a week, and he is expected to convey the message of social justice for which he has become known during his career:
“Pope Francis always goes back to the issues of the poor,” [Leonardo] Boff, 74, said in an interview after unveiling his 92nd book, which focuses on Francis and asks in the subtitle, “A new spring for the church?”
“And he has said, ‘You don’t help the poor with philanthropy but with social justice.’ Social justice requires change in society,” Boff said, speaking of a structural transformation he believes Latin America needs. “This is not something you usually hear from popes. They want to be distant, neutral — not him. He speaks from below for all to hear.”
Coming after a German pope known for being contentious and doctrinaire, Francis — an Argentine who in March became the first pope from Latin America — has prompted a level of excitement in the region for his humble style, coupled with a series of pronouncements and policy moves that are being interpreted as signs of possible change to come in a tradition-bound institution.
That is especially significant in Brazil, where many people express a need for a more socially active church to address the kind of disaffection that led hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them young and angry because of corruption and shoddy public services, onto the streets in dozens of cities late last month.
People in this country say they have noticed the changes in Rome, how the pope opted to live in a modest apartment and walk among the faithful in St. Peter’s Square. They are well aware that in Buenos Aires he took the bus and the metro, cooked his own meals and visited the “misery villages” — the tough slums on the city’s outskirts.
Latin Americans also have heard the pope candidly criticizing avarice and materialism.
The protesters that crowded the streets of Brazil recently are dissatisfied with their government for many reasons:
The spark was a strike against a 9-cent bus-fare hike, with the bulk of the protesters coming from the middle class. Now factory workers and waiters have joined university students and middle-class professionals who are livid about the billions of dollars in public funds being spent on sports facilities for soccer matches and Olympic track meets when public hospitals are substandard and schools are rundown.
Leaderless, faceless and assembling through social media, they have become a loud, collective voice against widespread graft, with some protesters carrying placards vowing, “Stop corruption or we will stop Brazil.”
They are tired of paying what they call first-world tax rates for third-world services, from pitiful roads to decrepit airports. Even the cellphone service, operated by private companies, has drawn the ire of users complaining of high costs and terrible connections.
The protests, which continued Saturday in several cities, come as the “Brazilian miracle” — a reference to how this once-sleepy giant morphed into one of the world’s top economies — is now seemingly grinding to a halt.
“I never saw a Brazilian miracle taking place,” said Mareli Volpato, 43, who works in an investment bank and has been protesting in the streets of Sao Paulo. “Corruption in politics is affecting everybody. This is killing Brazil. The money is not invested. You see no return.”. . .
Rosana Schwartz, a historian and sociologist who is an expert on social movements at Mackenzie University in Sao Paulo, said responding to Brazilians will be difficult because of the broad range of complaints. She noted that the public condemnation of the status quo was not ideological but rather focused on the day-to-day indignities people suffer, making it difficult for the government to address in a short time frame.
“Brazilians want a state that can solve their problems,” Schwartz said. “Parties from the left and the right haven’t been able to solve the daily problems, like transportation, housing, health, education.”
It is also increasingly clear that Brazil’s economic outlook is not going to be the catalyst for change, at least in the short-term.
An economy that grew steadily in the 2000s is expected to grow just 2.5 percent this year, inflation has accelerated by 6.67 percent in the last year and the Brazilian currency, the real, is sinking. Brazilian unemployment remains low compared with many countries in Europe, but people here complain about the price of everything from groceries to apartment rents, which in big cities are among the highest in the world.
For many Brazilians, it is little consolation that their country will host the World Cup and the Olympics in the next few years:
The sky-high cost of the events, [filmmaker Carla Dauden] argues, is a waste of money that should go toward alleviating poverty and illiteracy. “Yeah, maybe the guy selling ice cream on the beach might do better that week,” she says, adding that Brazilian leaders’ decision to host the costly sports events shows their lack of interest or ability to focus on their country’s larger issues.
She also criticizes the government’s efforts to “clean out” or entirely move slums that stand in the way of the events, a symbol of Brazilian leaders’ priorities given that these neighborhoods have been struggling for years.
The new pope’s journey to Brazil could be a revealing test, as the country encapsulates many of the Catholic Church’s problems around the world:
In Brazil, the pontiff’s message of social justice could not be more timely. This year, Latin America’s largest nation has seen its biggest bouts of social unrest since the early 1990s. Ostensibly over bus fares, the rash of protests came to encapsulate the frustrations of millions in a country that, despite years of economic growth, still harbors a vast underclass and deep income disparities.
The 76-year-old pope will be wading into a security challenge, especially when he rides through the still-unsettled streets of Rio de Janeiro without his popemobile. But he is also, many say, heading into a golden opportunity to resell the faith to the disenfranchised masses who have been taking to the streets. In recent decades, the Brazilian Catholic church has been steadily losing ground to evangelical faiths.
The percentage of Catholics in Brazil dropped from 93 percent of the population in 1960 to 65 percent in 2010.
See images from the Brazilian protests below.