Brazil visit underscores key themes of Francis' papacy
World Youth Day 2013 closing Mass
CLOSING LITURGY: Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2013 on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro July 28. Newscom

The first Latin American pope, on his first overseas visit, traveling to Latin America’s largest and youngest Church at a time of social ferment in the continent was always going to make waves. But what proved especially compelling was the contrast between the scale and grandeur of Pope Francis’ visit to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day and his own simplicity and directness.

The humility began with his July 22 arrival in Rio. Waving through the passenger window, Pope Francis made his way to the city center in a modest Fiat. At one point the car took a wrong turn and got stuck in traffic, leaving his security detail to push back a throng of well-wishers.

That approach continued with his choice of popemobile, which was open on both sides. Every day he toured Rio’s streets, forever stopping to kiss babies, embrace the disabled, honor the elderly, receive little gifts and exchange hugs. Brazilians loved him for his directness, simplicity, and the striking metaphors and homely language of his succinct, accessible three-point speeches. They loved that he struggled with Portuguese, lapsing into a Portuguese-Spanish mix that is known in Latin America as portuñol. And they were deeply moved by his love of the poor and the affection he showed to recovering addicts, young offenders, the elderly and shanty-town dwellers.

Culture of encounter

But this wasn’t just about earning fans. It was a visit to launch his papacy. From Mass at Brazil’s National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida up to the astonishing final liturgies on Copacabana beach, which attracted more than 3.2 million young pilgrims, Pope Francis packed in a heavy five-day schedule of visits and meetings that had certain constant themes: a poor Church with the poor, one that is on mission, seeking to build a new civilization based on a “culture of encounter.”

Speaking about drugs — which in Latin America corrode public authorities as well as destroy individuals — while visiting a new wing for addicts in the Hospital of St. Francis of Assisi, he opposed any relaxation of laws and called for tackling the issue at its root. Addressing addicts directly, he encouraged them to reach out for help and told the wider Church that “in these persons the flesh of Christ suffers.”

In the favela, or slum, of Varginha, he blessed a chapel with 18 pews and spent 15 minutes with a family in its house before addressing 20,000 local residents in a soccer field. There he laid out his vision of a culture of “solidarity” or “encounter” in which a society shares and includes, as opposed to a “throwaway culture” that marginalizes the less productive — the young and the old, the jobless and the disabled.

A society is impoverished and lacking in peace that “ignores, pushes to the margins, or excludes a part of itself,” he said, adding that the measure of greatness of a society “is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.”

He returned to this theme in an address the next day to 2,000 civil society leaders in the Municipal Theatre, in which he called for a “rehabilitation of politics” based on a “culture of encounter” — that is, “a politics capable of ensuring greater and more effective participation on the part of all, eliminating forms of elitism and eradicating poverty.”

In remarks interpreted also as a response to recent protests in Brazilian cities, he encouraged young people in their sensitivity to injustice and corruption, warning them not to become disillusioned when politicians or priests were inconsistent, and to be the protagonists in the building of a better world.

Inspired by Aparecida

Pope Francis’ social messages drew heavily on the conclusions of a continentwide meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007 at Aparecida, about 150 miles south of Rio, where in 1717 a statue of Our Lady turned up in the nets of three fishermen. Then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires had been in charge of redacting its conclusions, which became known simply as the “Aparecida document.”

By beginning his visit to Brazil with Mass at the vast basilica, Pope Francis was able to remind people of its core ideas, which are effectively his program: the importance of meeting Christ, Gospel simplicity and humility, a missionary spirit that goes out to meet others on the margins, and an option for the poor not as an abstract ideology of “liberation” but as meeting Christ in the poor and their devotions. The Aparecida document, he said in his homily at the shrine, was itself “born of the interplay between the labors of the bishops and the simple faith of the pilgrims, under Mary’s maternal protection.”

Many of his messages — whether in addresses or homilies to young people, or in meetings with the bishops — drew on the document’s lessons in evangelization. Partly, this was a call for a new attitude (at the shrine he spoke of the need for hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy) and partly a call to action (he told Argentine pilgrims that he wanted “havoc” to result from World Youth Day. “I want havoc in the dioceses, I want us out there, I want the Church to get out into the street, I want us to avoid everything that speaks of worldliness, of comfort, of clericalism, of being closed in on ourselves.” If we don’t get out, he said, “we become an NGO, and the Church cannot be an NGO!”)

Centered on God

But it was also an invitation to embrace faith’s Copernican revolution (which “removes us from the center and restores it to God”) and accept the total identification of Jesus’ love, “a love so great that it enters into our sin and forgives it, enters into our suffering and gives us the strength to bear it.”

At the July 27 vigil, the pope invited young people to become “athletes of Christ” who are training for something “much bigger than the World Cup.” It involved daily prayer, sacraments and loving others (“learning to listen, to understand, to forgive, to be accepting and to help others, everybody, with no one excluded or ostracized”) in order to build a more just and fraternal society, starting with each person.

At the July 28 closing Mass, attended by the largest crowd ever in Rio, he urged them to go out “to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away. Just before departing, he invited volunteers to “make definitive choices” in their lives.

On that final day, in addition to final Mass, the Angelus and meeting with 70,000 volunteers, Pope Francis addressed representatives of the Latin American bishops’ conference (CELAM), gave an interview to Brazilian TV, a farewell speech at the airport and then an 80-minute unscripted question-and-answer session with 70 journalists aboard the plane. It was a formidable first outing. 

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk).