Postcard from Rio 7: while speaking to Brazil’s heart, Francis issues challenges

(From Austen Ivereigh in Rio de Janeiro)

“The Pope alone saves” is O Globo’s witty headline today over a story of Francis wowing Brazil during a WYD which has had serious organisation failures — but not enough to dampen pilgrims’spirits.

Of the first there is no doubt. Brazil has taken to Francis with gusto. The taxi drivers and the juice bar waiters, along with the TV commentators, wax lyrical. They love his simplicity, his directness, his humility, his passion for social justice, his seemingly tireless capacity for kissing babies (and they’re not just pecks) and hugging the elderly; they love his well-aimed three-point speeches, his homely references and his striking metaphors; they love his cheeky, almost conspiratorial manner with the young; and they love him, of course, for being Latin-American – which means, essentially, that the person comes before anything else.

Yesterday he heard the Confession of one group of young people and lunched with another.  In between he spent half an hour hearing the stories of young offenders and giving an Angelus reflection on the importance of the elderly – the biggest new subtheme in WYD this year. In the evening led a spectacular Stations of the Cross in Copacabana beach, on another rainy night, giving one of the most potent reflections on the Cross ever by a pope.

Today he gave two key addresses, one to the bishops of Brazil, the other to civic leaders in the Municipal Theatre. As I write, the Vigil is under way at Copacabana beach.

The other part of the Globo story is that there have been major failtures in the organisation of WYD — especially in transport. Last night, stuck on a bus which (literally) didn’t move for two hours, it was easy to believe the popular narrative here that the organization of WYD has been chaotic. The city´s mayor. Eduardo Paes, admitted that it had been far from perfect. “The organisation has not been good,” he told a radio station yesterday. But today he is pointing out, reasonably, that 2m people leaving and arriving at a beach venue which is 4km long but just a few blocks wide was never going to be a breeze.

He said that the original decision to hold this weekend’s final events in Guaratiba — which had to be abandoned in favour of Copacabana following heavy rain — had been the Church´s choice. “The decision to hold the event in a poor area of the city was a request by the Catholic Church,” he said.

The WYD organisers, meanwhile, say it was traditional to find a large place to which pilgrims could walk, which would relieve pressure on the city, and Guaratiba had many advantages.  They knew it could become waterlogged, but were relying on the fact that it doesn’t usually rain much in July in Rio.

That rain seems, at last, to be over. The sun is back out;  there is great goodwill; and I haven’t yet met unhappy pilgrims — even though almost everyone here has a horror story to tell.

***

Despite a heavy schedule – it’s hard to find a TV screen here without the Pope on it – Francis  has been busy meeting bishops and religious to discuss curial reform. La Razon in Spain reports that on Tuesday, allegedly Francis’s rest day, he met Cardinal Rodriguez de Maradiaga of Honduras, who is chairing the Group of world cardinals selected by Francis to advise him on church governance. The cardinal suggested to Francis that the commission gather together the proposals of different bishops´conferences in an instrumentum laboris. He said the bishops were “keen to strengthen collegiality”, and suggested that the Curia needed to be smaller and with less duplication. (Ominously for Benedict XVI´s Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, he gave the example of that council being created alongside the existing one for the Evangelisation of the Peoples as an example.)

And Cardinal Rodriguez thinks the IOR, or Vatican Bank, should become “an ethical bank” rather than a “foundation”.

***

Asked in 2001 what he would be most sorry to do without, Cardinal  Bergoglio replied: “not be able to hear peoples’ confessions”.

“In the confessional,” he explained, “you understand the holiness of the People of God.” In confession, “a man or woman show their dignity as children of God, that he or she is a sinner and beloved in the mercy of God”.

It’s likely that hearing the confessions of five young people — three Brazilian young men, two young women from Italy and Venezuela — at Quinta Boa Vista in the north of the city yesterday morning made Pope Francis feel at home again as pastor.

He then went to the Archbishop’s Palace in the centre of Rio for a half hour’s meeting with eight young offenders. The six men and two women sat in a circle with the Pope, and shared their stories. The young woman, said Fr Lombardi later, was especially emotional and talkative, and had composed a song for him.

The group presented the Pope with a huge Rosary made of Styrofoam balls for beads, and a cross inscribed with the words, Candelaria nunca mais — ´Candelaria never again´, in reference to a massacre of young prisoners 20 years ago.

Candelaria nunca mais”, Pope Francis agreed, praying with the Rosary, before telling them  — says Fr Lombardi –“No more violence, only love.”

The prisoners wore WYD T-shirts, and Francis reminded them they were part of WYD too.

The Pope then lunched with 12 young people – six men and six women – chosen by lot to represent all WYD pilgrims. Two were from Brazil and two each from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. (Oddly, none were from Africa).

Later, they told us how nervous they had been. ( “I was so excited I lost my voice”, said a Russian girl, Polina Grigorieva.) Over a lunch of  mushroom risotto and beef, the Pope had told them they were quiet. “It’s not every day we eat with the Pope”, the Argentine, Marcelo Galeano, says he told him.

After that the ice was broken a little. According to Philip Thompson, an Indian who lives in New Zealand, the Pope asked him to speak in English slowly, so he could understand.

He asked them a series of questions – “why are you eating with the Pope, when some people are hungry?”; “why do some people suffer when they don´t have to?” – which brought tears to their eyes.

“He asked us to work in the community,” said Thompson. “Small things, but with great love”.

***

A spectacular, theatrical and deeply moving Stations of the Cross along Copacabana beach last night ended with Pope Francis challenging people to ask who in the Passion they were like – Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Mary, or the women.

It’s the kind of thing a Jesuit retreat director might put to his directees on an Ignatian retreat. Doing it on a windy, rain-swept beach before 1.5 million people, with the sound of waves crashing behind – well, that takes some.

It helped that we had just had an hour and a half of dramatic enactments of Christ’s Passion in an audacious attempt to link the Way of the Cross to contemporary concerns. (Symbolically, Jesus appeared as a white plaster statue image which then comes to life.)

With 13 of the 14 stations set along the 900 metres of the central part of Atlantic Avenue with the final one at the central stage, each was the site of a different drama, with 280 volunteers enacting the Stations or narrating the mediations.

The meditation of the Sixth Station, for example, listed landless farmers, prostitutes, “people excluded from the digital culture and migrants treated with prejudice” among “the victims of the culture of death”.

At the Eighth Station, women representing different professions put plants in to the ground, while at the Ninth a man in a wheelchair confessed that science and knowledge “often seduce me and lead to imagine that I do not need You”.

The stations were read by pilgrims in different states of life: a young missionary, a young convert, a young recovering addict, a young person speaking for mothers, a seminarian, a nun in the pro-life movement, a young couple in love, a young woman on behalf of all women who suffer, a young person working in social media, a young person who visits prisoners, a young person with a terminal illness and a young deaf person, and, finally, young people from all the continents (including Africa this time).

Most dramatic of all was the Tenth Station. A bruised, tortured Christ struggled up a blood-red ramp against a backdrop of neon signs of some of Rio’s leading beachside hotels.

At the Fourteenth Station, when the WYD cross reached the stage, young people representing Africa, North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australasia read prayers inspired by the Final Message of the Synod in Rome on the New Evangelisation in October 2012.

In his reflection following the Stations, Pope Francis said he had three questions: What have you left on the Cross?  What has the Cross of Jesus left for you? What does the Cross teach us? He said he wanted these to “echo in the hearts” of those present.

Speaking mostly in Spanish, he said the Cross of Christ accompanied every human suffering.

With the Cross, Jesus united himself to the silence of the victims of human violence, those who can no longer cry out, especially the innocent and the defenceless; with the Cross, he is united to families in trouble, those who mourn the loss of their children, or who suffer when they see them fall victim to false paradises, such as drugs.

On the Cross, he went on, Jesus is united with the hungry, and those persecuted for their faith or skin colour, as well as those who have lost faith in political institutions (“because they see in them only selflessness or corruption”) or the Church and God because of what he called the “counter-witness of Christians and ministers of the Gospel” – a reference which has been widely interpreted as referring to the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Asking the second question, he said the Cross was “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”. The Cross, he said, “contains all the love of God, his immeasurable mercy”, and there was no cross in peoples’ lives, however big or small, “which the Lord does not share with us”.

Answering the third question, he said the Cross “teaches us to be like Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus to carry that heavy wood; it teaches us to be like Mary and the other women, who were not afraid to accompany Jesus all the way to the end, with love and tenderness.”

“And you?” he asked a silent sea of pilgrims. “Who are you like? Like Pilate? Like Simon? Like Mary?”

He told them that Christ was looking at them and asking if they would help bear his Cross.

“What do you answer him?” he challenged.

Later, we learned that Pope Francis had been joined by 35 representatives of the cartoneros (“garbage landfill collectors”) of Argentina. They belong to a union called the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE) whose leaders are very close to the Pope. Every year, he celebrated Mass with them and called for an end to people-trafficking and degrading conditions among Argentina’s poorest workers. “He is very close to them,” Fr Lombardi explained today.

Having invited them to Rio he put out a request that they join him on stage last night.

One of the cartoneros, Sergio Sanchez, was at Pope Francis’s inauguration Mass. he describes the former Cardinal Bergoglio as “the only person who was at our side when our struggle was hardest”. He says he spoke out against “ the different kinds of slavery to which we workers are subject.”

“From him,” he said, “we’ve learned how our lives can be better”.

***

It has been good to meet Argentine media here who know Pope Francis well, having followed him for many years — among them Elisabetta Pique of La Nacion, and Sergio Rubin of Clarin.

Sergio’s book-long interview with Cardinal Bergoglio, The Jesuit, has been the main source of information about the new pope, who famously never gives interviews.

It took three times of trying, Sergio explained. Cardinal Bergoglio agreed to meet him and his co-author Francesca Ambrogetti once a month for two years.

The reason for the book, he says, was the realisation that Cardinal Bergoglio had received the largest number of votes (after Cardinal Ratzinger) in the 2005 conclave, and that he would be retiring in 2012-13.

“The book was thought of as the epilogue of a great Argentine cardinal who nearly became pope,” Sergio told us. “But it’s ended up being the prologue to what will surely be a great pontificate”.

Also speaking was Enrique Cangas, a Catholic photographer who followed Cardinal Bergoglio around for 10 years, capturing some remarkable moments which have been on display in a recent exhibition in Buenos Aires.

***

This morning Pope Francis addressed 300 of Brazil´s 400-odd bishops – this is, of course, the world´s largest Catholic country. Together with the one he is due to give tomorrow to representatives of CELAM (the umbrella group of Latin-American bishops’ conferences), this morning´s address is probably the most important of his ponfificate so far, according to Fr Lombardi.

I’ll do my best tomorrow to interpret them both together.

This morning’s was also a vital address – to 2,000 representatives of civil society, at the Muncipal Theatre in Rio – in which Pope Francis laid out his vision of a reinvigorated politics based on a “culture of encounter” – one of his favourite phrases.

This was an address which, like Pope Benedict’s at the College des Bernardins in Paris, Westminster Hall in London, and the Bundestag in Berlin, was an opportunity to give the papal vision of a healthy politics which gives space for faith.

And much of what Benedict said there, Francis said again here: the need for a healthy secularity which encourages the contribution of faith, and for faith and reason work together.

But compared to these, Francis’s address was much more straightforward and shorter – based, as ever, around three points: the distinctiveness of Brazil´s cultural tradition (capable of integrating different elements), joint responsibility for building a better future (in which he called for a “humanistic vision” and a “reinvigorated politics”) and constructive dialogue in building a new future.

Where normally the Pope would have been introduced by a political leader, here he was addressed by Walmyr Junior, part of the Rio Archdiocese´s pastoral youth team, who grew up in a favela and now teaches history at the Catholic University (PUC) here.

By the time he finished speaking, he was sobbing – and so were many in the theatre.

It was a wonderful piece of rhetoric, which began with the turnaround in his life after volunteering in his parish and finding meaning, and ended with him metaphorically bringing to meet the Pope all the young people who had never made it –the ones who had succumbed to drugs, or violence.

He said he had asked God why there was so much violence and had understood the answer: “because ‘love of neighbour’ was out of fashion.” He said his life mission was to bring it back into fashion  so others’ lives could be changed as his had been.

By the time he had finished, a standing ovation and a bear-hug from the Pope seemed  entirely appropriate.

After Pope Francis had finished, the curtains opened behind him and about 40 little girls came forward and sat around him while the choir sang Ubi caritas Est. It was oddly touching.

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