Postcard from Rio 6: Pilgrims’ faith proves ‘stronger than the rain’ as Francis models a Church that stands with the poor

(From Austen Ivereigh in Rio de Janeiro)

The big news here is that, after it rained ceaselessly yesterday during Pope Francis’ visit to a poor neighbourhood and again during last night’s million-strong ‘meeting’ with the pilgrims on Copacabana beach, the WYD organisers have taken the painful decision to cancel Guaratiba for the weekend’s Vigil and Mass.

Campus Fidei, as they called the vast open stretch of land outside Rio, was chosen not only because it could – just about – accommodate the anticipated 2m pilgrims, but because it would have brought some economic benefit to a poor area.

But after Campus Fidei turned into a sea of mud as result of the incessant downpour, the organisers decided to move the closing event this weekend – ending with Mass on Sunday, the original ‘World Youth Day’ – to Copacabana, site of the major events in Rio this week.

One of Brazil’s two big newspapers, O Estado de São Paulo, describes this as the third major organisation failure of the papal visit, the first being the papal car getting stuck in traffic on Monday and the transport breakdowns in Rio itself.

But the organisers insist that Copacabana was always the “Plan B”, and that it was the only responsible thing to do given the unusual conditions.

After investing millions in Campus Fidei – the vast stage, the thousands of portaloos, the hundreds of buses hired to ferry the pilgrims in and out – this can’t have been an easy decision.

Today, finally, the skies have cleared and the sun is back out. But according to an expert quoted by the newspaper, it would need five days of clear weather for the ground to dry out.

The chatter here now is about the implications of switching to Copacabana. Normally, pilgrims attend the prayer Vigil on Saturday night, and take to sleeping bags until the following day’s Mass, but the organisers have tried to make clear that there will no sleepover.  But will anybody listen? Most of the pilgrims are lodged some distance from Copacabana, and are unlikely to want to give up the places on the beach they’ve secured on Saturday night. And if so, what will 2m people sleeping over on the 3km stretch of beach look like? Will there be room even to lie down – or will pilgrims need to take turns sleeping? WYD might just be facing its severest test yet.

(Update: at a briefing this morning, the organisers said the new arrangement will be simpler for pilgrims — and they can sleep on the beach).

But the real challenge is to the Rio authorities, anxious to demonstrate to the world they can handle big challenges in advance of next year’s World Cup. Many of them won’t have slept much last night.

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Yesterday belonged to Francis. The slum pope, the world’s parish priest, the Church’s first missionary, the Buenos Aires native who feels trapped in the Vatican, the evangeliser anxious to break Jesus out of the confines of a ‘self-referential’ Church – all these were on display as he toured the favela of Varguinhas, held a meeting with 20,000 Argentine pilgrims in Rio’s cathedral, and finally addressed a soggy crowd of over a million joyous young people stretched out along Copacabana.

Varguinhas is a recently ‘pacified’ slum in the north of the city which until Brazil’s paramilitary police moved in last year to take out the drug lords and break up the gangs, was known as the ‘Gaza Strip’. About 1,500 people live there in simple structures made from building materials scavenged in municipal rubbish dumps – but it might be as many as 2.500. Anyone familiar with Latin-American cities would have recognised the scene, as well as the tiny breeze-block chapel of Sao Jeronimo Emiliani, with 18 simple wooden benches, where Pope Francis blessed the altar shortly after 11am.

He then toured the streets, indifferent to the rain, stopping to greet, bless, hug and chat to the people reaching out to touch him. He entered a house at one point, festooned in yellow and white balloons and spent 15 minutes with a family inside. The cameras didn’t follow him; and it’s easy to guess that, for the first time since his election, he was back doing what for years was familiar to him – -first as a Jesuit, and then as Buenos Aires auxiliary bishop and later Archbishop: listening to people’s stories, sharing their anxieties, asking after the children, and sharing a little hope and advice.

After more than half an hour he took a stage in a neighbouring soccer field to address more than 20,000 people from local neighbourhoods, after a speech from two residents, Rangler & Joana dos Santos Irineu, in which Mr dos Santos noted how, because of Francis, the area now had street lights and paved roads. (One can only imagine how the dos Santos felt suddenly becoming a name in every global news story.)

Pope Francis’ endlessly quotable address — which, as usual, centred on three points — put flesh on his vision of a poor Church that is with the poor. He began by saying how he had wanted to “knock on every door” in Brazil, but because that was impossible, had chosen their community that would stand for every district in the country. He then encouraged the protesters in Brazil without naming them in their desire for a more just world, observing that the key to a more just world was a “culture of solidarity”.

And the Brazilian people, particularly the humblest among you, can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity, a word that is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices. The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: it is the culture of solidarity that does so, seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters.

WYD15While encouraging the efforts that “Brazilian society” was making to integrate its poor, he also signalled that ‘pacification’  – in other words, taking control away from the drug lords – was not enough. There will no peace, he said “in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself” for any society which does so “simply impoverishes itself”.

Let us always remember this: only when we are able to share do we become truly rich; everything that is shared is multiplied! The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!

He went on to describe the Church, in a quote from the Aparecida Document, as the “advocate of justice and defender of the poor in the face of intolerable social and economic inequalities which cry to heaven”. The Church, he said, “wishes to offer her support for every initiative that can signify genuine development for every person and for the whole person”; that means giving bread to the hungry, but also seeking to meet the deeper hunger “for a happiness that only God can satisfy.” And he went on to list the keys to human flourishing:

There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its non-material goods: life, which is a gift of God, a value always to be protected and promoted; the family, the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation; integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for purposes of generating profit; health, which must seek the integral well-being of the person, including the spiritual dimension, essential for human balance and healthy coexistence; security, in the conviction that violence can be overcome only by changing human hearts.

Lastly, he offered encouragement to young people who he said had a particular sensitivity to injustice but were often disappointed by evidence of corruption among those who claim to be working for the common good.

To you and to all, I repeat: never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good, do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it. The Church is with you, bringing you the precious good of faith, bringing Jesus Christ, who “came that they may have life and have it abundantly”.

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Knowing Buenos Aires and having a particular affection for its people and their delightful way of speaking – sonorous, Italianate, humorously dramatic – I was looking forward to Pope Francis’ address to Argentine pilgrims in Rio cathedral. It didn’t disappoint. Here, at last, the Pope could abandon the Portuguese scripts with which he had clearly been struggling and relish the opportunity to be back with his people.

Francis has never made any secret that he is a porteño – BuenosAirean – born and bred. Anxious that, as auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, he might be sent to one of the provinces, he once told the papal nuncio that he wasn’t any use outside the Argentine capital. Now he’s Pope, of course, we know that’s one thing he got badly wrong. But just as, when he was a Jesuit doing some months of research in Germany, he was painfully homesick – he used to wave to planes in the sky he thought were headed back to Buenos Aires – he hasn’t hidden the fact that since his election he badly misses the barrios of his beloved city.

Yesterday he let that emotion show through in a touching display of affection for his fellow Argentines, especially towards the end of his eight-minute address, when he asked them to pray for him and confessed he felt “caged”.

But he didn’t miss the chance for some superb papal pedagogy in an address he delivered without notes, based, as ever, around three key points.

“I want to tell you something,” he began. ¨Do you want to know what I want to happen as result of World Youth Day? I want havoc. Sure, here inside there´s going to be havoc, and here in Rio too, but 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. The parishes, the schools, the institutions – these are all places to go out from, and if we don´t get out from them we become an NGO, and the Church cannot be an NGO!”

He went on to say that the worship of money had led to a “philosophy or praxis of exclusion” of both young and old. We’re practising, he said, a kind of “hidden euthanasia” in which we don’t let old people speak or act; and young people are being excluded from the dignity which work gives. Young people, he said, had to make themselves heard and to struggle for values while listening to the wisdom of older people.

In Argentina, I want to ask with all my heart that you old people never give up on being the cultural reserve of our people, who pass on justice, values, the memory of a people. And you young people, please, don’t go against the old, let them speak, listen to them and look after them. But both need to know that at this time you’re both condemned to the same destiny: exclusion. Don’t let yourself be excluded – got it? That’s why you’ve got to work together.

His second point was about the scandal of Jesus Christ and the Cross, and the importance of not mixing Christ with anything else. He said you can put oranges, apples and bananas in a liquidiser, “but don’t try to drink a faith smoothie” (licuado de fe).

Faith is something whole, it can’t be liquidised, it’s faith in Jesus! It’s faith in the Son of God made Man who loved me and died for me!

He then told them to read Matthew 25, which he said were “the guidelines against which we will be judged”. Together with the Beatitudes, he said, “you have the programme for action.”

“The Beatitudes and Matthew 25”, he repeated. “You don’t need to read anything else.”

He then paused and became visibly moved. He thanked them for “being close” and said he was sorry that they were “locked in”, and added: “I’ll tell you something, I at times feel how horrible it is to be locked in, I’ll admit to you from my heart.” And he told them slowly and with feeling how he would have liked to be closer to them but that for reasons of “order” that was impossible.

Thank you for coming close to me, thank you for praying for me. I ask you to that from the bottom of my heart, I need it, I need your prayers, I need them a lot. Thank you for that.

And he ended by reminding them of his three points: “Create havoc, take care of the two extremes of the history of peoples which are the young and the old, and don’t liquidise your faith”.

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Francis’ day ended with the event that the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have been looking forward to all week – his ‘meeting’ with them on Copacabana beach, in a paraliturgy which began with a short greeting by the Pope and ended with his reflection on the Gospel of the Transfiguration.

It was a dazzling scene, despite the rain – a spectacle of dance and song which gave Brazil a chance to show itself to the world. Much of it was indistinguishable from a charismatic or evangelical style of worship, showing how much Brazil’s Pentecostalist fervour has permeated the Catholic scene here, although another way of saying the same thing is that Brazilians have a natural charismatic propensity, which explains why so many nominal Catholics end up drifting into evangelical megachurches.

But there were two thoroughly Catholic moments in the show: the first was when a choir of small boys from the southern province of Brazil sung the ‘Ave Maria’ from Ennio Morricone’s score of The Mission. That film famously tells the story of the tragic closing by order of the Pope, under pressure from the Portuguese colonial government, of the Jesuit mission to the Guarani people of the area. The ‘reductions’, as they were known, offered a brief flowering of a happy fusion of Catholic and native – a poignant counter-story to the usual (highly simplistic) narrative of a European Church helping to destroy an indigenous culture.

I’ve never met a Jesuit who doesn’t love The Mission, and its famous score, and I’ve no doubt that Francis knows it well. He appeared quite absorbed as the Guarani children sang sweetly above the sound of the waves and the wind and rain.

The other was also a page from Brazil´s eighteenth-century history – -the discovery by three fishermen of the statue of the Virgin, later named Our Lady of Aparecida.

The fishermen, in straw hats, enacted the finding and then presented a statue of the Virgin to Pope Francis to bless.

This was Francis’ first meeting with the young people here, and sure enough, both addresses spoke directly to the heart.

‘Well attended’ does not quite capture it. Having struggled through the crowds for over an hour to reach the press office by the stage, I eventually gave up and walked out of Copacabana – the whole area was closed to traffic, as an extraordinary sea of pilgrims washed in from all over the city – to find a taxi that could take me home to watch it on TV. Later, Fr Lombardi, the Vatican´s spokesman, said there were more than 1m pilgrims attending.

Globo TV’s coverage was rapturous, with endless praise for the Pope’s simplicity, humility and humour.

One thing was clear: the Pope can manage a large crowd. In his opening greeting he called a million people into a minute’s prayerful silence to remember the death of a pilgrim in French Guyana, before rousing them with a series of well-aimed challenging questions: “Today Christ asks each of us again: Do you want to be my disciple? Do you want to be my friend? Do you want to be a witness to my Gospel?”

There was a touching moment when he told the crowd that Pope Benedict had told him he would be following the event on television and praying for everyone there. There were shouts of “Benedicto!” from the crowd, which Francis encouraged: “Si, Benedicto! Benedicto!” he echoed.

His reflection on the Gospel of Luke 9:28-36 offered a classic choice between illusory thrills and faith in Christ, taking up the slogan of the Brazilian Church’s campaign in the lead-up to WYD to “put on faith” (in Portuguese, bota fe!).

I was curious to find out if Francis, like Benedict XVI and John Paul II before him, would address the pilgrims in different languages. Not only did he not do that — it is no secret that Francis is no linguist — but he gave most of his reflection on the Gospel in Spanish, spoken slowly and carefully so he could be understood.

Faith, he said, is a “Copernican revolution” that shifts the focus away from false idols and egotism and onto God, who alone brings true happiness.

Just as we “put on” salt and oil to food, he said, we had to “put on” faith so life has a new flavour.

As darkness descended he told the young people to offer the witness of faith and the service of charity to others, “carrying to this world a ray of his light.”

He said it is tough being a bishop — and a “sad bishop” is no good to anyone — so it is important for him and other bishops to be confirmed by the enthusiastic faith of the young. Pope Francis also said the way the pilgrims have continued celebrating despite the weather demonstrates how “your faith is stronger than the rain and the cold.”

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Today, Francis is hearing the confessions of young people and lunching with them, before leading the Stations of the Cross this evening on what has turned out to be the only large theatre of this WYD – Copacabana Beach.

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