In his most political speech yet during his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, Pope Francis on Thursday addressed social inequality and the widespread protests that have paralyzed parts of the country.
Demonstrators and media had speculated on whether the pope would take on the protests that have brought millions of Brazilians to the streets since June. Vatican sources told local media that the pope would not use the word “protests,” but instead would speak about corruption in a nod to demonstrators.
“Here in Brazil, there are many young people. You, dear youth, possess a special sensibility when you see injustice, but often become disillusioned with news of corruption, with people who, instead of looking for the common good, look for their own benefit,” Francis said in a speech on a wet soccer field on his visit to the Varginha favela. “Reality can change. Man can change.”
Francis, the first pope from Latin America, arrived in Brazil for his first foreign trip as pontiff on Monday. The former Argentine archbishop is the fourth pope to visit Latin America, where 42 percent of the world’s Catholics live. Brazil has the largest number of Catholics of any country, though that number has steeply declined in recent decades. While 92 percent of Brazil identified as Catholic in 1970, that number is now 65 percent.
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The Thursday morning event — a rare visit by a pope to a slum — took Francis through a favela that is part of the Complexo de Manguinhos, one of several dozen communities that are now part of what the Rio de Janeiro police call the “pacification” program. The policing program brings 24-hour patrols to slums once controlled by drug traffickers. Manguinhos was occupied by police late last year. The area once saw so much drug and police violence that it was locally called the “Gaza Strip.”
Hundreds of residents crowded the muddy sidewalks to catch a glimpse of Francis, and many expressed delight when they he decided to step off his popemobile and walk through the community, even in a cold rain.
The pope also warned of the shortcoming of the pacification program — a key initiative of the Rio de Janeiro government as it looks to tamp the reputation for violence the city has long held. Francis said the program needed to go beyond policing and promote social inclusion.
“No effort of ‘pacification’ will be long-lasting, there will be no harmony nor happiness for a society that ignores, leaves at the margin, that abandons on the periphery a part of itself,” he said.
After visiting the favela, Francis held a mass for more than 1 million people at Copacabana beach.
“This week, Rio becomes the center of the church,” he said. The crowd hung on to his every word, cheering “Long live the pope!” throughout the short speech.
On Sunday, the pope will return to the sands of Copacabana for his farewell mass. It was to have been held on a field outside the city but continued rainfall left it knee-deep in mud. He leaves for Rome later Sunday.
Francis has cultivated an image of humility and particular admiration among Brazilian Catholics, who have commented on his accented Portuguese and warm style. He was greeted in Varginha by a swarm of children singing, “Pope, I love you!” and favela residents waiving Brazilian flags and posters with his image. After praying in a small chapel, he walked through the main street of Varginha, stopping often to bless and touch the hands of the crowds on the sidewalks.
Seleda Marcelos, 47, an administrative assistant and Catholic participating in the week’s events, said the pope was able to address the demonstrations without repudiating the Brazilian authorities — the main targets of demonstrators — who are hosting the event.
The speech “made it possible for authorities to understand that youth have everything needed to make this country work, especially against corruption. He also said that those who have more should give some more, to put some ‘more water in the beans,’” Marcelos said, quoting a line from the speech that referred to sharing food. “I think it was very clear for the young people to not let this [the demonstrations movement] get soft, to keep looking for the ideal.”
After praying in a small chapel, Francis walked to the home of Maria Lúcia dos Santos. Several residents had been short-listed for the visit and prepared shrines and gifts for the pope, should they have been chosen for the visit.
Diego Rodrigues, 26, a pilgrim from São Paulo who is staying in the home of dos Santos’ family in a network of housing provided by the Catholic church to visitors, was the first to open the door for Francis.
“It was a surprise, emotional. It was so many emotions at once,” Rodrigues said. “I can’t explain. There are no words for this.”