Yesterday, the leader of the largest religion in the world knocked on the door of Maria Lucia dos Santos Peña in Varginha, a favela in north Rio de Janeiro, and spent 10 minutes talking to 20 members of the family who had crammed inside the two-story dwelling. The Pope’s decision to visit the overcrowded and poor community where more than 50,000 people live in difficult conditions was a moment that underlined the message adopted at the beginning of his pontificate – to draw attention to the poor and needy and highlight social injustices.
While he has frequently been lauded for his humility and attention to those living in ill health and poverty, Pope Francis showed this week that he is aiming to move his outlook on poverty beyond rhetoric.
Some observers thought he would avoid directly criticizing the Brazilian government during his week-long stay, the first South American Pontiff has been doing just that. In his speech in Varginha he launched a two pronged political attack, highlighting the need for more than a theological mindset in political decision-making. Even though his comments were directed at the community and protesters, many felt the intended audience was the political elite. And he may well get the chance to deliver this message privately at a meeting today with politicians and businessmen.
He challenged the strategy of "pacification" in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and warned that while social inequality remains unresolved, "there will be no lasting peace.” Then, against the backdrop of demonstrations against government spending and corruption that have continued on the streets of Brazil since they started in June, the Pope appealed to the young protestors to continue fighting against corruption and pushing the government for social change.
"No pacification effort will bring lasting peace, harmony, and happiness for a society that ignores and leaves its people on the periphery of itself," the Pope said.
“I know [you are] often disappointed with news of corruption and with people who, instead of seeking the common good, seek their own benefit,” he told the young people of Brazil. “…Do not be discouraged, do not lose confidence, reality can change, man can change.”
His words were welcomed by Julio Alves de Araujo, a teen from Sao Paulo. “I’ve taken part in the protests before but I came here today because I’m a Catholic. What our Pope is saying about fighting corruption makes me feel like he really gets what we are trying to do and he is one of us.”
'All will be answerable'
But both of the issues touched upon yesterday by the Pontiff are politically sensitive for the government. The pacification strategy, which started in 2008, is a key tenet of the government’s social improvement program that aims to tackle drug traffickers and gang violence in the slums by using hundreds of police to arrest and drive them out. Next, the area is occupied and pacified with a long-term police presence.
The strategy has drawn a lot of criticism from citizens of the favelas who are angered at how the program has been rolled out. So far the pacified favelas have been in the more affluent areas, around the Maracanã and in the tourist sections of the city. The apparent logic has been to ensure the cleanup and protection of the zones hosting the major international events – the Confederations Cup (which occurred in June), the World Youth Day (which lasts until Sunday), the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics.
The policy has pushed armed drug dealing gangs to other slums on the outskirts of Rio and into other states in Brazil.
Arch Bishop of Niteroi, Dom Jose Francisco says the Pope’s speech resonated with the Catholic faith, and believes he will hold Brazil accountable for how it moves forward on poverty reduction and its approach to security.
“Pope Francis has already announced that he’s coming back to Rio in four years time and we all will be answerable if we haven’t acted on his messages.”
Pope's words a 'game changer?'
But are Brazil’s politicians listening to Pope Francis’s message?
The Pontiff´s views will be tolerated out of deference to his position as a religious leader, says Eurasia Group Latin America analyst Joao Augusto de Castro Neves.
“I don’t see his statement being a game changer as this debate over the pacification of the favelas and how it has been strategized already exists in Brazil,” Mr. Castro Neves says, noting that Brazilians as a whole “do not like foreigners telling them what to do.”
“The role of the church in Brazil is shrinking and nowadays the Catholic Church is important at a local level but its status of 20 to 30 years ago, on a national level, has diminished quite significantly,” Castro Neves says.
According to a survey by Datafolha Research in June 2013, 57 percent of Brazilians over 16 years of age declare themselves Catholics, the lowest level in the history of the country. In 2007, a similar survey by Datafolha showed 64 percent considered themselves Catholic, and in 1994, it was 75 percent.
Only 11 percent of Catholics say the opinion of religious leaders is important when choosing who to vote for politically, Datafolha found.
Among politicians, there is also a history of Catholic leaders seemingly meddling in internal politics here. In 2010, when former Pope Benedict XVI said political “projects that advocate the legalization of abortion or euthanasia are a betrayal to democracy,” he addressed his opinions to a group of Brazilian bishops just a few days before Brazil's presidential elections. It caused a rift between the Catholic Church and President Dilma Rousseff’s government as the pro-life vote was considered a decisive factor.