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.”

What has been interesting, and is of particular relevance to Ireland, is the lack of emphasis so far on the once “non-negotiable” Catholic values on issues such as abortion, euthenasia, gay marriage and sexual morality generally. It is not that Francis has any intention of changing Church teaching on such issues. On the contrary, as we all know, his track record is that of a conservative traditionalist.

It is more that he simply does not see these matters as “priority” issues. Where John Paul II and Benedict were wont to give twice-weekly public diatribes, with Benedict calling homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil” (as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a 1986 letter to the bishops) and with John Paul II calling abortion “a terrible rejection of God’s gift of life and love” (in St Louis in 1999), Francis is relatively silent.

Some Irish media have made much of his “special message” to Catholics in Ireland and Britain in relation to the church’s Day For Life, released last Tuesday, in which the Pope emphasised the need to “care for life from conception to natural end”. To an obvious extent, this was intended as a comment on the new Irish abortion legislation yet, as such, it came late in the day, after the bill had already been passed by the Dáil.

During the gruelling abortion debate, there were no direct interventions by Francis himself. By contrast, John Paul II had no such temerity in 1995, openly calling on the Irish faithful to reject divorce in the referendum that ultimately sanctioned the 1996 Family Law (Divorce) Act.

When The Irish Times asks Fr Lombardi whether either the Pope or the Holy See would be commenting on Ireland’s new abortion legislation, his (not unpredictable) answer is that “We leave comment on issues like that to the local bishops”. In other words, we are steering clear of this one.

In a similar vein, the papal trip will steer clear of the sex-abuse issue, something which prompted meeting with victims on previous papal trips. Fr Lombardi says this is simply because the church in Brazil did not schedule such a meeting.

Given the Pope’s Argentine nationality and given that all the indications are that he will not travel much (this Brazil trip is the only overseas one planned for this year), this visit marks a monumental moment in the fledgling papacy.

‘Bit of an adventure’

While Francis himself is averse to any cult of the personality – a few days ago, he ordered that a recently erected statue of himself in the grounds of Buenos Aires cathedral be removed immediately – this trip will still represent a huge continental homecoming attended by up to three million people.

And, as Fr Lombardi puts it, knowing Francesco, it might be a “bit of an adventure” containing some unscripted moments.

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