RIO DE JANEIRO (RNS) It’s not every day that the pope drops in for a visit to your home. But Maria da Penha dos Santos lucked out when Pope Francis chose to enter her small yellow two-story house in the rundown slum of Varginha.
The Thursday morning (July 25) visit came on the fourth day of the pontiff’s weeklong World Youth Day tour. Santos’ house was one of seven earmarked for a visit.
She was waiting outside with her husband, daughter and granddaughter when the pope stopped in front and told her “we have a beautiful family and he had loved us even before we had met.”
A clearly overwhelmed Santos introduced him to 20 of her family members who squeezed inside the tiny shanty for about 10 minutes.
“I said, welcome Pope Francisco, the house is yours,” said Santos, who is 82.
This was an intentional visit to a slum, or favela, by a pope who has increasingly demonstrated his willingness to break with tradition, go into the streets and meet with the people.
These aren’t merely gestures. Francis is prepared to set a new agenda that could bring about change in society. It’s a fresh approach riding on the back of a strong social message that focuses on the poor, the dispossessed and the needy.
But it is delivered with a hefty dose of humility. In Varginha, the pope made an oft-repeated request: Pray for me.
Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who resides in Rome, gave a clue as to why Francis has been asking for prayers:
“The pope is about to make profound changes in the Roman curia,” Aziz told a Brazilian news organization. “Things that will leave many people pulling their hair out, as the saying goes.”
On this occasion, the pontiff made his appeal shortly before he launched into criticism of the government strategy on the “pacification” of favelas. In touching on this issue, Francis attacked a sensitive security policy that has drawn widespread criticism from the slum communities.
The pacification program involves driving out armed gangs of drug traffickers using hundreds of military police and installing a Police Pacification Unit to secure and protect the stability of a favela.
While recognizing the social advances promoted by the government, Francis warned that pacification of the favelas couldn’t be accomplished with just weapons alone. He homed in on the dissatisfaction surrounding the slow implementation of economic and social programs that still have not assuaged the poverty in the areas.
He also questioned the government’s timing for the pacification program. With major events scheduled for the city, including the World Cup (in 2014) and the Olympics (in 2016), the program so far has been concentrated near the richer and tourist-orientated part of the city and around the Maracana football stadium in the north, which is where Varginha is located.
“I want to encourage the efforts that Brazilian society has made to integrate all parts of your society, including the most deprived and those suffering from hunger and poverty,” he said. But his tone changed as he went on to say: “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 also added: The greatness of a nation can only be measured by how it treats its poor, an indirect reference to the government’s insistence on selling Brazil as one of the largest economies in the world without offering a definitive solution to its slums.
Archbishop Dom Jose Francisco of Niteroi, commenting on the pope’s speech, said: “His words resonate with what our faith should be about and what Jesus taught us — that our lives are without meaning and purpose if they are led for selfish and materialistic reasons.”
The pontiff arrived in Brazil at the tail end of a period of deep social unrest. Throughout June the country was paralyzed by massive protests as hundreds of thousands of mainly young people took to the streets to rally against political corruption, excessive public spending, and deficient public services in education, health and transportation. Smaller protests continue on a daily basis.
Undeterred by the protests, the pontiff urged the youth of Brazil to continue pushing for improvements. In a sign of his support, he asked the young people not to lose hope.
“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 said.
“For all the young people, I repeat my message: Do not be discouraged. Do not lose confidence. Reality can change. Man can change,” he insisted.
Julio Alves de Araujo, 18, from Sao Paulo, welcomed his words: “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. This makes me proud to be Catholic because my friends on the marches are listening to him as well and they say he is a revolutionary like us.”