Pope Francis tells Brazil’s poor not to lose hope

Pope Francis on Thursday issued the first social manifesto of his young pontificate, telling slum dwellers in Brazil that the world’s rich must do more to wipe out vast inequalities between the haves and the have-nots.

The pope also urged Brazil’s youth, who have taken part in recent protests showing discontent with the status quo, to keep alive their “sensitivity towards injustice” and be a catalyst in the fight against corruption.

The first Latin American pope, who has rallied the Church on behalf of the poor and who lives more austerely than his predecessors, called for a “culture of solidarity” to replace the “selfishness and individualism” prevailing in modern society.

“No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world,” he told residents of Manguinhos, a sprawling shantytown, or favela, of ramshackle brick dwellings that until recently was overrun by violence and controlled by drug lords.

His speech, under rains that have persisted throughout most of his first trip abroad as pope, came halfway through a week-long visit around World Youth Day, a gathering of young Catholics that is expected to attract more than a million faithful to Rio de Janeiro and nearby sites.

Despite the downpours and unusually chilly weather, tens of thousands of rapturous Brazilians and foreign visitors have turned out to welcome the pope.

Francis, an Argentine known for frequent outings into the slums near Buenos Aires even as a cardinal, smiled and visibly enjoyed the chaotic close contact allowed with residents in Manguinhos. He called for more efforts to end poverty and said authorities must do more than just crack down on the drug trade to ensure opportunities for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

“Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices,” he said in an address on a muddy, rain-drenched soccer field.

Francis also visited Varghina, one of the smallest of Rio’s more than 1,000 slums, a triangle-shaped chunk of flat, dusty land sitting between two putrid waterways full of raw sewage. Here, the pope waded into a cheering crowd and hugged and kissed residents young and old before blessing the altar at the shoebox of a church that serves the community. He prayed before a replica of Brazil’s patron saint, the Virgin of Aparecida, and met with a family in their squat yellow 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 who received the papal visit. "I think everyone but the pope was speechless!"

Brazil, home to the world’s biggest population of Catholics with over 120 million faithful, is an apt locale for the pope to remind the world of inequality. A recent decade of economic growth in the country raised incomes for many, but tens of millions of Brazilians still live in poverty or with little more than the basics to get by.

The pope praised Brazil´s efforts over the last decade to reduce poverty in Latin America’s largest nation, which last month was rocked by massive protests against corruption, the misuse of public money and the high cost of living.

But he said more needed to be done to bridge the gap between rich and poor at the root of social injustice, in a reference to the police occupation of Rio’s slums started last year to “pacify” drug-related violence.

“No amount of ‘pacification’ 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,” he said.