RIO DE JANEIRO – Pope Francis, dubbed the “slum pope” for his work with the poor, received a rapturous welcome Thursday from one of Rio’s most violent shantytowns and demanded the world’s wealthy end the injustices that have left the poor on the margins of society.
Francis received an even more frenzied welcome as he opened World Youth Day in a far different setting: Rio’s upscale Copacabana Beach.
Amid the stench of raw sewage and the shrieks of residents, Francis made his way through the Varginha shantytown, part of a region so violent it’s known as the Gaza Strip. The 76-year-old Argentine seemed entirely at home, wading into the cheering crowds, kissing residents young and old and telling them the Roman Catholic Church was on their side.
It was a message aimed at reversing the decline in the numbers of Catholics in most of Latin America, with many poor worshippers leaving the church for Pentecostal and evangelical congregations. Those churches have taken up a huge presence in favelas, or shantytowns such as Varginha, attracting souls with nuts-and-bolts advice on how to improve their lives.
“No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!” Francis told the crowd. “No amount of peace-building 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.”
Francis’ open-air car was mobbed on a few occasions as he headed into Varginha’s heavily policed, shack-lined streets, but he never seemed in danger. He was showered with gifts as he walked down one of the slum’s main drags without an umbrella to shield him from the rain. A well-wisher gave him a paper lei to hang around his neck and he held up another offering — a scarf from his favorite soccer team, Buenos Aires’ San Lorenzo.
“Events like this, with the pope and all the local media, get everyone so excited,” said Antonieta de Souza Costa, a 56-year-old vendor and resident of Varginha. “I think this visit is going to bring people back to the Catholic Church.”