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.