Published On: July 26, 2013

Pope in Brazil

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Pope Francis arrived in Brazil on his first international trip since being selected as Pope in March. Choosing Brazil as his first destination was a source of great rejoicing among Brazil’s Catholics, the largest group of Catholics in the world. It is a sign of the importance of Latin America, made clear by the papal conclave when it elected Francis. Not only is Francis the first Jesuit elected as Pope, but he is also the first Pope from Latin America.

Surprising some who are not accustomed to the Pope’s avoidance of the trappings of power, Francis made his way on Monday from the international airport to downtown Rio in a modest motorcade, riding in a compact Fiat car with the window open. People crowded around the vehicle, extending their arms in the Pope’s direction while taking pictures of him on their cellphones.

Upon his arrival in downtown Rio, the Pope said, “Let me knock gently at this door,” in a brief address delivered entirely in Portuguese to his hosts, including President Dilma Rousseff and Sérgio Cabral, the governor of Rio de Janeiro state. “I ask permission to come in and spend this week with you.”

The Pope’s visit was originally planned by Benedict, the previous Pope, to coincide with World Youth Day, a conference of Catholic youth being held this week in Rio. When Benedict stepped down, many believed Francis would not honor Benedict’s commitment. Pope Francis is facing several pressing crises at the Vatican currently, including the arrest last month of a monsignor connected to the Vatican bank.

Some observers also suggested Pope Francis wouldn’t visit Brazil at this time because it would give the appearance he was choosing Brazil over a visit to his native Argentina. It was also feared that the Pope might cancel his trip after the street demonstrations in Brazil.

Security has been particularly tight for the Pope’s visit due to the recent social protests, but it became immediately clear upon his arrival that the Pope was not afraid to mix with the general population. On Monday, his driver apparently took a wrong turn and ended up in the middle of throngs of supporters in the streets of downtown Rio. The Pope remained calm and even extended his arms from the window of his car to show his willingness to connect to his supporters. Elio Gaspari, a newspaper columnist, wrote about the frenzied scene on Monday. He noted that among the street chaos, Francis had calmly blessed a child thrust in his direction. “He was just a man without fear of the people.”

The police used water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators near Governor Cabral’s palace on Monday night after some protesters hurled rocks and bottles in the direction of security forces. The violence followed the Pope’s address and a speech by President Rousseff, in which she warmly welcomed the Pope and said that they shared an objective of diminishing poverty and income inequality.

“We’ve got nothing against the Pope. Nobody here is against him,” said Christopher Creindel, a 22-year-old art student and Rio native protesting outside the government palace. “This protest is against our politicians.”

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed that a homemade explosive device was found Sunday by Brazilian authorities in a public toilet near the basilica at Aparecida, the Marian shrine that Francis visited. Vatican security was informed of the device but didn’t think it was aimed at the Pope, Lombardi said.

On Tuesday, the Pope held a seaside Mass in Rio, but the subway system in Rio broke down for two hours, leaving thousands of Catholic youth stranded in their effort to reach the Mass.

Many Catholics gathering here expressed the hope that Francis could help to alleviate tension on Brazil’s streets and beyond. “What I want is for our Pope to tell all people to have faith and tell people to be friends,” said Eric Kamanal, 48, who came here with a church group from Ivory Coast. “The Pope cannot resolve the problems of society, but he can illuminate the right path.”

On Wednesday, the Pope celebrated Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida, in the city of Aparecida in the state of São Paulo. Aparecida is the home to a massive shrine to Brazil’s patron saint, and one of Latin America’s largest shrines. In the Mass, the Pope asked Catholics to shun the “ephemeral idols” of material success, power, and pleasure.

The Pope said he planned to return to Brazil in 2017. Later on Wednesday, the Pope returned to Rio, where he visited a hospital for drug addicts. At the hospital, he criticized supporters of decriminalizing drug use and called traffickers “merchants of death.”

His remarks were very much in line with the Pope’s beliefs in social justice. Pope Francis is highly regarded by Brazilians for announcing that the focus of his papacy would be social justice. For decades, the Latin American arm of the Catholic Church has supported a more liberal approach to Catholicism, known as liberation theology, veering away from the conservative teachings of the Vatican, as represented by the previous Pope Benedict XVI.

Political protests have continued in Rio this week and Rio’s political authorities have faced scrutiny over their handling of street demonstrations around the Pope’s visit. The government has acknowledged using undercover agents to infiltrate the protests but denied claims that their intelligence officers were to blame for violence, including the throwing of firebombs.

Still, the revelation that Rio’s security authorities had infiltrated protest movements with undercover agents provoked disgust among some. João Paulo Soares, 21, a student, said the police’s tactics violated the right of “freedom of expression.” But he welcomed the visit of Francis, an Argentine-born Jesuit with spartan habits. “He is revolutionary, like we are,” he said.

On Thursday, the Pope toured a favela in Rio, leaving his popemobile behind to walk through Varginha. On an uncommonly cold and rainy morning, hundreds of residents lined the narrow, muddy sidewalks of the Varginha favela to glimpse the first Pope from Latin America, who obliged by stopping often to touch and bless people.

In a speech there, he urged young people to fight against corruption, a clear sign of the Pope’s support for the recent street protests in Brazil. “Do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it,” he said. In keeping with the welcome shown him by the President of Brazil, the Pope did not specifically mention the anti-government protests. Also, he praised the current government for its anti-poverty programs.

The Pope did, however, criticize the government’s program to prepare Rio’s slums for the coming World Cup and Olympics, known as the “pacification project.” He said: “No amount of pacification will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself.” He spoke of the inequality of the rich and poor or ‘haves and have nots’ and said a society “impoverishes itself” by perpetuating such inequality.

Pope visits Rio favela

Just days after his election this year, the Pope made a statement to journalists in Rome where he stated, “How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.” In accordance with this statement, the Pope has refused to live in the lavish apartment he is entitled to, but instead shares a communal guesthouse. He also wears a large cross made of iron instead of gold.

A poll from the respected Datafolha group published Sunday in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo said 57 percent of Brazilians age 16 and older call themselves Catholic, the lowest ever recorded. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II became the first Pope to visit Brazil, 89 percent listed themselves as Catholics.

“When the Pope talks, political leaders listen, and that’s what’s needed in Brazil, where our protests are about their corruption,” said Natalia Morais, 21, a nursing student from Minas Gerais who traveled to Rio to see the Pope as part of World Youth Day.

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