RIO DE JANEIRO -- A pope who has become known for his simple ways will walk the streets of a shantytown, visit young prisoners and greet hundreds of thousands of pilgrims this week during World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil, the world’s largest Roman Catholic nation.
In an effort to get closer to the people, Pope Francis will leave his bulletproof popemobile at home. For his first international trip since assuming leadership of the Church, Francis has insisted on traveling in an open-top jeep during his weeklong visit to this city that sits between the sea and the mountains.
His itinerary begins Monday and includes numerous opportunities to mingle with everyday people. He’ll pray with crowds of young people on Copacabana Beach, visit a favela in the poor Zona Norte, talk with young inmates from a Rio prison, inaugurate a hospital wing for treatment of drug addicts, travel via helicopter to the shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, a black Virgin Mary who is the patron saint of Brazil, and say his final Mass in a once vacant lot that has been transformed into Campus Fidei (Faith Field).
Francis’ predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, had planned to make the trip before he resigned and the new pope has kept the itinerary with a few twists that will bring him into closer contact with Brazilians and pilgrims who are expected from 170 countries.
Msgr. Franklyn Casale, president of St. Thomas University, called it a “fortuitous coincidence’’ that the first pope from Latin America will make his first international trip to the region. The pope plans to speak in both Spanish and Portuguese, “so he’s covering the continent,” he said.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who will welcome the pope when he arrives on Monday, said that when she first met the pontiff at the Vatican in March, his portuñol, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, was so good that no translator was necessary.
Francis’ reputation as a simple man who took the bus and answered his own phone when he was Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has preceded him in the Varginha shantytown where he is scheduled to visit Thursday. And his message of “a poor Church for the poor,’’ not one that seeks earthly power, resonates in the community with its tangle of ad hoc electrical hookups, piles of trash in the streets and stray chickens pecking around.
Part of the Complexo de Manguinhos shantytowns where police and the army wrested control from drug traffickers early this year, Varginha and neighboring favelas used to be known as “the Gaza Strip’’ because they were so violence-prone. In Varginha, Francis is expected to visit with a family and give a blessing to residents.
“For Pope Francis to visit us — a favela — as a pope, it is surprising. But as Bergoglio, this is what he did in Argentina. He lived in these communities,” said Everaldo Oliveira, a small-business owner in Varginha.
Last week, residents gathered at nearby Nossa Senhora de Bonsucesso de Inhaúma church to put together backpacks and kits for World Youth Day visitors who will be sleeping in the church, and to make a special gift for Francis.
Rafael Ricardo, 28, lugged in a sack of sand from Copacabana Beach that will form the background of a piece of art that will be presented to Francis and bear the Latin motto favored by the pope: “ Miserando atque eligendo (lowly but chosen).”