Pope Francis visits richest and poorest on first full day in Rio

July 25, 2013

He started Thursday with the poorest of the poor, people living in ramshackle homes near open sewage in Rio’s northern fringe. And he ended the day in one of the world’s most exclusive enclaves, on the glitzy beach of world-famous Copacabana.

But Pope Francis’s message was the same: Don’t let money and greed steal your soul; they can only “bring the illusion of being happy.”

“All together — show your faith!” the 76-year-old pontiff said at night before a crowd that local television commentators estimated at 1 million on the white sand of Copacabana. “Show your hope. Show love.”

He called faith “revolutionary” and asked: “Are you ready to ride this wave of revolution of faith?”

For many of the overjoyed faithful, the pontiff has started a revolution of his own — to reform a church many believe is staid and out of touch and to give voice to young people here in Brazil and as far away as Europe who are dissatisfied with their lives.

“The truth is that he’s the pope of a new time and is opening up a church, opening up a new church to everyone,” said Carlos Subelza, 28, a seminarian from northern Argentina. “He does what he says, and that wins him supporters.”

Lucas de Sousa Montes, 17, a high school student from northern Brazil, said he, too, thought the church would be transformed. “The pope came to revolutionize the church,” he said. “He came to fix what was wrong.”

The crowd at Copacabana — mostly people in their teens and early 20s, among the throngs from nearly 180 countries here for the biennial World Youth Day for young Catholics — was markedly different from the one that came out to see the pope at Rio’s Varginha slum in the morning.

Those in Varginha were poor, working-class, even from the underclass; and they watched, astonished, as Francis visited a speck of a Catholic chapel, held up a scarf he had been given bearing the name of his favorite Argentine soccer club and stopped to bless overjoyed people in the crowd.

The pope then strode into the modest home of a local family.

The throngs of faithful — as well as the many evangelicals in Varginha — could barely contain themselves as the smiling pontiff again showed his populist side on the fourth day of his historic visit to Brazil, the world’s biggest Catholic country.

“He’s so calm among the people there,” marveled a commentator for the Globo TV network as the pope visited with the family after his stop in the San Jeronimo Emiliani chapel. “What’s it like for people in that home? What might they do — offer him a cup of coffee?”

Pope Francis warmed the hearts of residents in one of Brazil’s poorest neighborhoods Thursday. Known as a "favela," this shantytown was once one of Brazil's most dangerous, plagued with drugs, violence and poverty.

Wearing a plain white cassock, the pope then mounted a stage on a soccer pitch and told residents he had hoped to visit “all the barrios of the city.”

“I wanted to come knock on all doors, ask for a fresh glass of water, drink a coffee — not cachaca,” he said to laughs from the crowd, referring to the local hot beverage made from fermented sugar cane.

“Brazil is so big, it is not possible to knock on every door,” the pope went on. “So I chose to come here, to visit your community, a community that represents all the barrios of Brazil.”

Francis has become known as the “slum pope,” not just because of his advocacy for the downtrodden during his four months as pontiff but also because of his fearlessness in entering the “misery villages,” as shantytowns are known, in his native Buenos
Aires. As archbishop of that city, he sent priests into the neighborhoods, and those who have closely followed his career say he allowed them to engage in the kind of activism that some in the Vatican hierarchy, most prominently his predecessor as pope, did not openly support.

Francis’s larger plan is to strengthen the church in Brazil, where millions have migrated from Catholicism to evangelicalism in recent years, by bolstering support for the poor. A poll published Sunday in the Sao Paulo newspaper Folha was sobering for the Brazilian church hierarchy and the Vatican: Only 57 percent of Brazilians age 16 or older identify as Catholic, down from well over 90 percent in the 1960s.

In his remarks in Varginha, the pope criticized the “culture of selfishness and individualism,” spoke of how the wealthy need to do more to end social injustice and told residents to “never yield to discouragement” because of corruption.

He also praised the poor for the solidarity they show toward one another, saying such gestures can be a “great lesson for the world.”

And he stressed to the people of Varginha that he is on their side.

“The church offers its collaboration on all initiatives that lead to the development of all people,” he said. “The church is with you. The pope is with you.”

Hours later, speaking under a rainy sky in Copacabana, the pope’s message to the faithful was less political and more centered on the importance of believing in Jesus. “He is a friend who does not defraud,” the pope said.

Some young Brazilians spoke of how they want to see the pope, who has over the months shown he is an advocate of social justice, speak forcefully about what they consider the deep problems with the Brazilian political and economic model. Brazilians hit the streets by the hundreds of thousands in June, demonstrating against everything from corruption to shoddy bus service to high taxes and inflation.

“I hope he takes a strong posture,” said Cris Amorim, 25, a teacher who spoke about how irate she is over the country’s corruption. “The pope is here to lead on these kinds of issues.”

With three days left in his trip to Brazil, the pope still has several events at which he can widely disseminate his position, if he chooses, on those kinds of issues to his young followers.

Juliana Montesso, 36, a nutritionist here, said she believes the pope can have an impact.

“The pope has come to show that evil cannot win and that people who cheat and who are corrupt cannot win,” she said. “The pope is a chief of state and a religious leader, and he does what other chiefs of state and religious leaders cannot do.”

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