Pope Wades Into Social Issues in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO— Pope Francis decried the endemic corruption that feeds Latin America’s deep divide between rich and poor as he bored deeply into social issues, including illegal drug abuse, that have long plagued the region and which he seeks to place at the center of his papacy.

AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis is engulfed by well-wishers at the Manguinhos slum in Rio de Janeiro, where he discussed corruption in his sermon on Thursday.

Against the backdrop of a crowded ghetto of self-built shacks on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis on Thursday addressed for the first time the social tensions that have fueled a wave of sometimes violent protests across Brazil.

In Rio for a church-organized spiritual event targeting young Catholics, the pontiff took a sipe at the region’s leadership while calling on youth to rise above endemic corruption.

Associated Press

Pope Francis, top center, Thursday visited the Varginha slum, one of Rio de Janeiro’s shantytowns.

Pope Francis addressed social tensions that have fueled a wave of protests across Brazil during a visit to one of the country’s impoverished slums Thursday, calling on young people to rise above the country’s endemic corruption. Nicholas Casey reports. Photo: AP.

“Dear young friends, you have a particular sensitivity towards injustice, but you are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on that part of people who put their own interests before the common good,” Pope Francis said, addressing a crowd of 20,000 people amid wind and rain at a soccer field in the slum Complexo de Manguinhos.

“Do not allow your hope to be extinguished,” he said. “Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good. Do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it.”

In June, frustrations with government accountability boiled over in weeks of student protests that often drew comparisons between lavish spending to build new World Cup stadiums and the country’s otherwise substandard schools and hospitals.

Elected in March, Pope Francis’ weeklong visit to Brazil is laden with symbolic importance in part because the Argentine pope is returning to his home region, where he earned a reputation as an outspoken leader on social issues as archbishop of Buenos Aires. The Argentine pontiff took aim at the social injustice and exclusion that has long formed a corrosive undercurrent in Latin American life. He called on governments to spend more on aiding the poor.

The day ended with more than a million people—mostly young Catholics—crammed onto Copacabana Beach, some braving the cold to splash in the surf, and a funk-infused rally of religious-themed music.

Pope Francis’ use of the trip to align himself with the street by criticizing the status quo shows how he may become a problem for local leaders as his popularity and regional voice gains strength. Many of the region’s leaders are leftists who came to power as critics of issues such as corruption themselves, but are facing criticism for not adequately rooting it out.

Pope Francis Visits Rio

Reuters

Pope Francis greeted the crowd from his popemobile in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Monday.

Defining Papal Visits

Associated Press

Over six days, millions of people saw John Paul II in Mexico, pictured, on the first trip of his papacy outside of Italy.

One of them is Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who on the first day of Pope Francis’ visit lauded her government’s record on social issues, including poverty reduction. In a speech, the former Marxist guerrilla proposed a partnership with the church on poverty eradication. She also sought to describe the protests as a symptom of progress. “When people start getting social inclusion, they want more social inclusion,” she said.

Papal officials didn’t respond officially to Ms. Rousseff’s proposed partnership, a fact that Vatican observers said reflected the pope’s caution against being pulled into partisan politics.

Pope Francis plunged into other flashpoint issues such as illegal drugs. Calling drug dealers “merchants of death” on Wednesday evening, he criticized proposals by some Latin American leaders to legalize drug use.

“It’s not by allowing the free use of drugs, as is being discussed in various parts of Latin America, that it will be possible to reduce the spread and influence of chemical dependence,” he said.

South America is the world’s sole supplier of cocaine, and is becoming a major consumer as well, prompting a group of former and current leaders to call for decriminalization as a way to stem violence.Pope Francis’ views on the subject were formed in the slums of Buenos Aires, where he said law enforcement neglect had created a de-facto legalization of cocaine use, which in turn spawned violence.

Thursday’s visit to Manguinhos is part of what Vatican officials say is a drive to reorient the Catholic Church toward grassroots ministry—territory that has largely been yielded to rival Evangelical Protestant churches in recent years. But his ability to set the tone on social issues is dampened by the church’s own scandals, from sex abuse to corruption at the Vatican bank.

Still, he called on public authorities to “never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!”

Pope Francis’ trip to Rio comes at a time when the seaside city is increasingly in the international spotlight—a city of millions of poor that is preparing to host next year’s soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

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At one point, the pontiff ducked inside one of the neighborhood’s makeshift homes for a coffee break—his nose rouged by uncharacteristically blustery wind and rain in a city better known for sun and blue skies.

“I would have liked to knock on every door, to say ‘Good morning,’ to ask for a glass of cold water, to take a cafezinho,” the pope said, using the Portuguese word for a shot of sweet coffee. “But Brazil is so vast!”

As part of the preparations, Rio authorities have launched a city-wide crime-reduction effort. That includes a process of “pacification” of the city’s sprawling slums, which existed largely outside the reach of law enforcement for years until police and military units began occupying them and setting up civic police units in recent years.

“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,” the pope said Thursday.

Pope Francis called for more social services to accompany the law enforcement efforts.

—John Lyons contributed to this article.

Write to Stacy Meichtry at stacy.meichtry@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared July 25, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Pope Wades Into Social Issues in Brazil.

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