RIO DE JANEIRO — The young people Pope Francis will address Thursday night in a Mass on the famed Copacabana beach will sing and pray, showering the pontiff with warmth on his first papal trip abroad to preside over a biennial gathering of the world’s young Catholics.
Yet many young Brazilians are simmering with discontent and even rage, which bubbled over last month into relentless nationwide protests that left the government reeling. So far on his trip, the 76-year-old pope has only broadly addressed the challenges faced by youths all over, declaring that young people “are in crisis” and that they are susceptible to the “many idols which take the place of God” — money, power and pleasure.
Many who have come to see the pontiff expect him to more directly address their grievances when he speaks Thursday from a futuristic three-level stage on the crescent-shaped beach, Catholic analysts say.
His advocacy for the poor and criticism of materialism and greed are expected to resonate with the young, particularly those frustrated by the inequality that plagues Brazil and neighboring countries, among them the pope’s native Argentina. But in his week-long trip, Francis has to strike a balance — ensure that his words don’t irritate the left-leaning host government, which has expressed a desire to work with the Vatican to battle inequality, while not raising hopes too high when discussing earthly concerns such as inflation and corruption.
Among the Brazilians following his words is Wesley Prado, 24, who participated in major protests here and was arrested. Prado acknowledged that in the new Brazil — the dynamic country that officials here promote to the world — he attends university for free and his family is in the middle class, which has expanded by 40 million people since 2003.
But like so many of the protesters, Prado has no patience for conformity and instead talks of a yearning for respect and a dignified life. He predicts more protests and lists a slew of complaints about Brazil that make him “feel suffocated” — the inadequate bus services, the dilapidated schools, the deep-rooted corruption and the Tokyo-level costs that make a trip to the grocer unsettling.
“It’s not one thing — it’s many, many things,” Prado said. “And it’s been accumulating for many, many years.”
On Wednesday, in an emotional visit to a rural basilica that holds the shrine of Brazil’s “Black Mary,” the pope spoke of his concern about “a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people.” He also addressed the young, saying they needed to be a “powerful engine for the church and for society.”
The comments that the pontiff has made in his four-month-old papacy have not been incendiary, partly because of his humility in delivering them. But in talking about the economic crisis whipsawing Europe, he has gone so far as to raise concerns about what he called “savage capitalism,” a term frequently used by Latin America’s left, while criticizing the “dictatorship of the economy” and those who exploit “without thinking about people.”
President Dilma Rousseff, in an 11-minute speech Monday after welcoming the pope to Rio, appeared to anticipate a politics-laden visit. She lauded Brazil’s “extraordinary results” in poverty reduction but said she wanted to work closely with the Vatican “against a common enemy — inequality.” She also said that Brazil could do better to improve the lives of its people.
“That was the sentiment that moved hundreds of thousands of young people into the streets,” she said, speaking at a lectern as the pope sat beside her. “Democracy, as Your Sanctity knows, generates desires for more democracy.”
The Brazilian government has been particularly guarded about the festering discontent as the world’s eyes have descended on this continent-size country. The pontiff’s visit is big, but it is also considered a dress rehearsal for two larger, more complex events: the World Cup soccer championship next year and the 2016 Olympics.
Marcelo Neri, an economist who heads the government’s Institute of Applied Economic Research, said Brazil’s economic indicators show a country at near-full employment in which inequality has been reduced and incomes are outpacing inflation. Polling by Gallup, he said, has consistently shown that Brazilians are more satisfied with their lives than people in other countries.
The protests, and the percolating dissatisfaction, caught the government by surprise, said Neri, one of the country’s foremost experts on socioeconomic trends.
“It’s almost like a lightning bolt on a day of clear sky,” he said. “You wouldn’t expect it.”
The watchdog Associacao Contas Abertas, or Open Accounts Association, has a far less rosy view of what it calls the government’s historically poor management.
Gil Castello Branco, an economist and the group’s director, said that corruption in Brazil adds up to as much as 2.3 percent of economic output and that the country’s tax burden rivals those of developed countries. A Contas Abertas study found that less than half of the $150 billion earmarked for education, health care, mass transit and other services from 2003 to 2012 was actually invested, he said.
“In short,” Branco said, “the budget is fictional and poorly executed.”
Many of the young protesters place much of the blame on a Congress that political analysts say is rife with nepotism and graft.
“We don’t see ourselves represented by the people who are supposed to represent us,” said Tauat Resende, 22, a Catholic law student who said he is impatient to hear the pope. That, he said, is a central reason that services are so poor and yet taxes are so high.
“We don’t get back what we should,” he said.
Resende was among those who took to the streets last month, when a 9-cent increase in bus fares sparked demonstrations. They soon morphed into an uprising in hundreds of cities in which the young, most of them from the middle class, were joined by older Brazilians to defiantly share their “sentiment that things aren’t functioning well in Brazil,” said Edemilson Paraná, 24, who lives in Brasilia. Fighting poverty, an effort that Paranáacknowledges has recorded important accomplishments, was simply not enough anymore.
“People feel that the actual model is unable to deal with their complex problems,” he said. “We want quality lives, to have good education and health care, to have quality of life in big cities, which are frankly unlivable now.”
The millions of poor and middle-class Brazilians living in cities face countless indignities: riding packed and plodding trains or buses, dealing with a vast bureaucracy, standing in long lines for health care. Then there is the crime — of the 50 cities in the world with the highest homicide rates, more than a dozen are in Brazil.
Paulo Henrique Lima, 24, a budding musician and university student, lives in a run-down district on the periphery of Rio where drug gangs roam and an open sewer streams past his home. He writes pointed lyrics about a roiling political scandal in which lawmakers were paid off to support government initiatives.
On a more personal level, he said he is livid about what happened to his grandmother after she recently fell in the street and fractured a leg.
Although nearly 70, she spent weeks in the hospital awaiting a simple operation because the right equipment could not be found.
“They don’t have medicine, or a doctor even, or the right equipment,” he said. “And we have a government that says that things are going so well.”