Pope condemns inequality on visit to slum

Large enthusiastic crowds greet Francis in ramshackle favela of Varginha

Young people cling to a fence while trying to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis in the Varginha shantytown  in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Young people cling to a fence while trying to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis in the Varginha shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images)


Pope Francis used his visit to a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro yesterday to make one of the most politically charged speeches of his pontificate so far, calling for a “culture of solidarity” to replace the individualism of modern society.

“Nobody can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world,” he told residents of Varginha, a ramshackle favela of cinderblock homes far from Rio’s legendary beaches and which until last year was controlled by the city’s biggest drug gang.

The visit to the slum was part of his week-long trip to Brazil for World Youth Day. Large crowds of Varginha’s residents turned out to greet the pope despite the heavy rain. It was further evidence that Latin America’s first pontiff is re-energising the faithful in the world’s most populous Catholic country following several decades during which millions of Brazilians defected to evangelical Protestant churches.

The pope once again seemed at ease as enthusiastic crowds swarmed around him, reaching out to shake hands and even receiving as a present the shirt of his beloved San Lorenzo football team in Buenos Aires. He blessed a new altar in the community’s small local church and visited several families in their homes.

As cardinal of Buenos Aires Pope Francis frequently visited the city’s slums as part of his drive to have the Catholic church reach out to the poorer sectors of society. He was a leading strategist in the drive to end the situation in many Latin American countries where the church overstaffs middle-class neighbourhoods at the expense of poorer areas, where residents are turning instead to evangelical churches.

In a short speech that followed his walk through Varginha, the pope also urged young Brazilians to “never become disheartened, never lose confidence” in the face of the corruption that permeates Latin American societies.

It was his clearest signal of support yet to the young Brazilian protesters who last month rallied in massive demonstrations against political corruption and social inequality.

Though he acknowledged advances in social inclusion he indirectly rebuked the Brazilian government, which in recent years has heralded the country’s rise to become one of the world’s biggest economies, saying “the measure of a society’s greatness is taken by how it treats its neediest”.

He also indirectly criticised the policy of “pacifying” favelas such as Varginha by using the army and elite paramilitary police units to chase out drug gangs urging greater efforts to tackle inequality, saying: “No effort at pacification will be lasting, there will be no harmony and happiness for a society which . . . abandons to the periphery part of itself.”

Afterwards he met with Argentinian pilgrims attending World Youth Day. An estimated 40,000 of them have travelled to Rio de Janeiro to see their fellow countryman on his first visit back to the continent since his election in March.

Last night Pope Francis was to officiate at his first event of World Youth Day, a gathering on Rio’s well-known Copacabana beach.