In the four months since assuming the papacy, Pope Francis has cultivated an image among followers and non-Catholics alike as a humble leader with a record of emphasizing society’s most poor and vulnerable.
He eschewed the golden throne used by his predecessor and instead opted for a simple wooden one. He washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients in hospice care while serving as a Cardinal in Argentina. When he arrived in Rio de Janeiro Monday for the much-hyped World Youth Day, expected to draw as many as two million visitors to the city over the course of the week, he rode from the airport in a Fiat Idea, considered a “popular” car in Brazil. During the week, he will visit a favela, or squatter settlement, and meet with juvenile inmates and patients in treatment for addiction.
But Francis arrived in Brazil after more than a month of often violent and increasingly bitter street protests against government corruption and public spending priorities. The large demonstration that met him as he arrived to the Rio de Janeiro governor’s official palace for his first event of the week last night highlights the fine line he will have to walk as demonstrators see him fraternizing with the political leaders who serve as the target of their ire.
“The Vatican should have to deal with all the costs [of the event], not us Brazilians. We already went to the streets over 20 cents,” said Diego Alcântara, a civil servant, referring to the bus fare increase that was the catalyst for millions of Brazilians to take to the streets in June. Mr. Alcântara was among about 2,000 demonstrators who participated in a rally outside the governor’s palace last night, which came to a violent end as a protester – or as some activists are suggesting on social media, a police infiltrator – threw a molotov cocktail toward police. As a result, the police charged the demonstrators with a water canon, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Protesters were chased by cops through a residential neighborhood to the steps of a Catholic church, where demonstrations continued for hours more.
Public expenditures on mega-events, such as the recent Confederations Cup soccer tournament and the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, have been a recurring theme of demonstrations across the country. Protesters say such international events get special attention while public schools and hospitals are underfunded and government corruption goes unpunished. Local media reported that the Brazilian government would spend about $60 million on World Youth Day, between additional security forces and special events.
Media reports say Francis will address the Brazilian protests, and Brazilian Catholic officials have expressed support for peaceful demonstrations over the past weeks. Local officials, such as the Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, have made public statements telling demonstrators they should not make Francis a target of their frustrations, and even joked that Brazilian authorities should take advantage of Francis’ visit to “confess and stop committing these sins.”
“The presence of Your Holiness in Brazil offers us the opportunity to renew a dialogue with the Holy See in favor of the values that we share: social justice, solidarity, human rights, and peace among nations,” President Dilma Rousseff said at the reception for Francis last night in the governor’s palace.
Francis himself changed his transportation plans and took a helicopter to and from the palace rather than arriving by car, in order to avoid the demonstrations, his spokesman Federico Lombardi said. Landing on a football field next to the palace and entering through a side door, he wasn't once visible to the public who lined the streets hopeful to catch a glimpse of him at the front entrance.
Despite Francis not addressing the demonstrations in his first speech at the palace Monday, many still expect him to take a stance. Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan priest and early preacher of Liberation Theology who has often been at odds with the church for his stance on human rights, recently published a positive biography of Francis. In an interview with Brazil’s state news agency, Mr. Boff said the demonstrators’ “cause is just and in line with the Gospel. ... I think the pope will make an appeal to authorities for them to listen to their citizens and to not turn their backs on the people. I think he is a courageous man who speaks the truth,” Boff said. He added that the pope “talks about contradictions and about our responsibility to resolve them.”
Gabriel Rezende, a student, was among a group of catholics who traveled by bus across Brazil from the border state Paraná to coastal Rio de Janeiro to see Francis this week. As police told him his group would need to get farther from the palace because they feared disturbances from the demonstrators, Mr. Rezende expressed disappointment. “With a pope who is the pope of the youth, who likes the poor, we should be closer,” he said.