Vatican Radio is reporting that the pope received a rapturous welcome yesterday when he visited one of the most violent shantytowns in Rio, a district known as Varginha. Dubbed the "Gaza Stip" of Brazil, it was also considered to be the crack capital of the country until police managed to clear out a heavily armed drug gang known as the Red Command earlier this year as part of the city's preparation for the Olympic Games.
But on the day the pope visited, the whole community was basking in the limelight of the "slum pope", so named for his attention to the poor in his native Argentina. Carrying devotional items like rosaries and statues, the people poured out of their crumbling shanties chanting "Francis, I love you!" to shower him with humble gifts from their meager stores. All were more than happy to hear his words of encouragement and compassion.
"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."
To the young people in the crowd, who have been taking to the streets of Brazil in recent months to protest widespread government corruption in inefficiency, he spoke with particular eloquence.
"You are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good," Francis said. "To you and all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change."
He also blasted the "culture of selfishness and individualism" that permeates society today and demanded that the wealthy invest their resources in the fight against hunger and poverty.
At one point during his visit, the pope had to calm an "especially exuberant" group of school children by praying them into a "brief but intense silence" writes Sean Patrick Lovett of Vatican Radio.
Lovett was also impressed by the patience shown by the pope "when he constantly risked having his sleeve (and right arm) ripped off by overly affectionate individuals who seemed intent on taking a piece of him back home with them. Again and again he plunged into the crowds that surrounded him, engaging people in conversation, dispensing blessings, caresses and words of encouragement and consolation."
Someone actually attempted to count how many babies he kissed during the visit but lost track at 138!
It was these gestures that spoke even louder than his words, Lovett said. " . . . (T)he universal thumbs-up sign of positivity and participation, the way he constantly touches his heart to indicate his closeness and affection, the joined hands of prayer, and the physicality and generosity of his embraces, the shy, almost self-effacing smile – and the eyes that widen with curiosity and recognition, leaving people feeling that not only has the Pope seen them – but that they too are important."
This was certainly true of the da Penha family who had the honor of receiving the pope into their poor home.
"He gave each of us a rosary, he took photos with everyone and embraced each one," said Diego Rodrigues, a 26-year-old friend of the da Penha family, to the Associated Press. "I think everyone but the pope was speechless!"
There was even a minor miracle during the visit.
"Distracted as we were by all this joy and excitement of the Pope’s visit to Varginha, many of us missed witnessing a sort of minor miracle," Lovett reports. "Yes, the rain stopped… well . . . for about ten minutes, at least."
Later in the day, the pope had his first official encounter with the youth of World Youth Day when he greeted hundreds of thousands of young people at the Copacabana Beach.
"In you I see the beauty of Christ’s young face," he told the huge crowd. "I am looking at the large crowd before me – there are so many of you! And you have come from every continent! In many cases you have come from afar, not only geographically, but also existentially, culturally, socially and humanly. But today you are all here, or better yet, we are all here together as one, in order to share the faith and the joy of an encounter with Christ, of being his disciples. This week Rio has become the centre of the Church, its heart both youthful and vibrant, because you have responded generously and courageously to the invitation that Christ has made to you to be with him and to become his friends."
World Youth Day plans for the next two days were changed as it became apparent that the area outside the city that was to be the scene of many activities this weekend had become a marshland due to the steady rain that has been falling all week. Event organizers have decided to move these venues to Copacobana Beach which is the only other place in Rio large enough to handle such large crowds.
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