At Slum, Pope Chides Wealthiest
People greet Pope Francis, center, as he visits the Varginha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, July 25, 2013. Francis on Thursday visited one of Rio de Janeiro's shantytowns, or favelas, a place that saw such rough violence in the past that it's known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
People line the roads to greet Pope Francis as he arrives in his popemobile to the Varginha slum, part of the Manguinhos slum complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, July 25, 2013. Pope Francis on Thursday visited one of Rio de Janeiro's shantytowns, or favelas, a place that saw such rough violence in the past that it's known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Rio De Janeiro — After Pope Francis stepped out of the speck of a chapel in Rio’s Varginha slum Thursday, he held up a scarf he had been given bearing the name of his favorite Argentine soccer club, stopped to bless overjoyed people in the crowd, then strode into the modest home of a local family.
The throngs of faithful could barely contain themselves as the smiling 76-year-old pontiff again showed his populist side on the fourth day of his historic visit to Brazil, the world’s biggest Catholic country.
“He’s so calm among the people there,” marveled a commentator for the Globo TV network as the pope visited with the family after his stop in the San Jeronimo Emiliani chapel. “What’s it like for people in that home? What might they do — offer him a cup of coffee?”
The pope chose to begin his first full day among his Brazilian followers in a poor district in Rio’s north, far from the glitzy apartment buildings and beaches of the better-known Zona Sul, or South Zone. Wearing a plain white cassock, he mounted a stage on a soccer pitch and told residents he had hoped to visit “all the barrios of the city.”
“I wanted to come knock on all doors, ask for a fresh glass water, drink a coffee, not cachaca,” he said to laughs from the crowd, referring to the local hot beverage made from fermented sugar cane.
“Brazil is so big, it is not possible to knock on every door,” the pope went on. “So I chose to come here, to visit your community, a community that represents all the barrios of Brazil.”
Francis has become known as the “slum pope,” not just because of his advocacy for the downtrodden during his four months as pontiff, but because of his fearlessness in entering the “misery villas,” as shantytowns are known, in his native Buenos Aires.
As archbishop of that city, he sent priests into the villas, and those who have closely followed his career say he allowed them to engage in the kind of activism that some in the Vatican hierarchy, most prominently his predecessor as pope, did not openly support.
Francis’s larger plan is to strengthen the church in Brazil, where millions have migrated from Catholicism to evangelism in recent years, by bolstering support for the poor.
A poll published Sunday in the Sao Paulo newspaper Folha was sobering for the Brazilian church hierarchy and the Vatican: Only 57 percent of Brazilians age 16 or older identified themselves as Catholic, down from well over 90 percent in the 1960s.
In his remarks in Varginha, the pope criticized the “culture of selfishness and individualism,” spoke of how the wealthy need to do more to end social injustice and told residents to “never yield to discouragement” because of corruption.
He also praised the poor for the solidarity they show toward one another, saying such gestures can be a “great lesson for the world.”