Pope Francis’s visit to Brazil fulfils his predecessor’s promise
True to form, the pontiff will visit the favelas and a hospital for addicts and will travel in an open-top jeep
Francis in the favelas; nothing could be more appropriate than that the first overseas trip made by Pope Francis takes him back to his own continent, offering him an opportunity to bear witness to his desire to have “a church of the poor and for the poor”.
There is an element of serendipity or, if you prefer, divine intervention, in all of this. On Monday morning, Francis will fly from Rome to Brazil for the week-long celebration of the 28th World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. The point about this, however, is that the choice of Brazil was made more than two years ago – it was announced by Francis’s predecessor, Benedict, at the final Mass of the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid.
In other words, this was one large item that Francis found in the ‘in tray’ when he replaced Benedict in March this year. If Benedict has left Francis a number of hairy problems – Vatileaks, the reform of the Curia, the clerical sex-abuse issue, the Vatican Bank, the crisis in first-world vocations – there is little doubt that this is one thing inherited from Benedict that Francis has embraced with enthusiasm.
Within days of his election, Francis had confirmed he would honour Benedict’s promise to travel to Rio. Thus, this World Youth Day seems to fit in perfectly with the iconography of a pontificate that in four months has already offered images and words unthinkable throughout the 35-year reign of Wojtyla/Ratzinger thought.
Significantly, though, Francis has made some changes to the Brazil programme he inherited. Firstly, he has scrapped the day of rest, intended for his obviously older and more frail predecessor. Secondly, he has added the following events: the visit to the favelas, the shanty towns; a visit to a hospital that caters for drug addicts, alcoholics and the poor; a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida; a meeting with the Latin American Bishops’ council.
It also says something about this trip that Francis has opted to use the open jeep he has been using at his public audiences in St Peter’s, rather than the bullet-proof, sealed-off but clearly more secure “popemobile”.
‘Voice of the poor’
In a midweek briefing a senior papal spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, said Francis had chosen the jeep because it would enable him to “communicate directly with people”. The wisdom of this choice, in a country marked by violent protests during the Confederations Cup football tournament just three weeks ago, remains to be seen.
Thus far, Francis has been, as the US Jesuit church commentator Fr Tom Reese puts it, “the voice of the poor, the unemployed and the global south”. For his first official trip outside Rome just two weeks ago, he chose the highly symbolic “boat people” island of Lampedusa, off Sicily.
During his short time on the island, he railed against “the globalisation of indifference”, asking forgiveness for “those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies”.
He is the Pope who in just a few months has made some pretty iconoclastic statements: “St Peter didn’t have a bank account”; “It hurts me when I see a priest driving the latest model of car”; “Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don’t have food — that’s not news”; “If investments in banks drop a little, it’s a tragedy. But if people are starving, if they have nothing to eat, if they are not healthy, it does not matter. This is our crisis today.”