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Saturday, February 6, 2016
- Pope Francis’ first overseas trip, to Brazil, the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world, was marked with setbacks, disorganisation and lack of infrastructure for an event that brought half a million pilgrims to the city of Rio de Janeiro.
The pope attended World Youth Day events held Monday Jul. 22 to Sunday Jul. 28 in Rio, where most of the religious ceremonies took place in well-known locations like the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the Metropolitan Cathedral and a park at Copacabana beach, the site of the inaugural masses and the Stations of the Cross.
The Jesuit former president of the Pontifical Catholic University, Jesús Hortal, admitted to IPS that during the preparations for World Youth Day, he had realised that the logistics would be “a big problem.”
“Our infrastructure is not up to scratch. We don’t have express buses, airports or transport facilities, and the metro is a joke,” said Hortal, who knew the Argentine pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Getting around the city was very difficult for the tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world who spent hours stranded in crowded metro stations trying to get to Copacabana.
Roads were closed in the famous Rio neighbourhood, blocking buses and forcing the faithful to walk for kilometres or to face the power outages that interrupted the metro, the only means of transport to reach the main scenario of the Catholic celebrations.
Every day long lines of people waited to take the metro, causing the stations to overflow and crowding the streets of Copacabana.
“Are you a journalist? Then report on this absurd situation; nowhere in the world is the metro as bad as this,” one Brazilian pilgrim said crossly.
The week-long celebrations surrounding World Youth Day were not only hard on the faithful, who also had to put up with cold, rainy weather, unusual in this tropical city.
Francis was taken by surprise too.
When he arrived in Rio, his motorcade was caught in a traffic jam of buses on one of the main avenues. The news spread quickly that the pope was trapped in traffic, and tens of thousand of faithful surrounded his vehicle, trying to catch a glimpse of him.
The first Latin American pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church came to Brazil at a time when the country has for weeks been shaken by social unrest. Young people have been protesting in dozens of cities since early June, demanding political and social change.
It was fortunate that the pope should arrive at this time, sociologist Ivo Lesbaupin of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro told IPS.
“The demonstrations put two million people on the streets, young people demanding their rights, calling for changes, reacting against a way of doing politics…that is separate and removed from society,” he said.
Three protests took place during Francis’ visit, which ended Sunday Jul. 28. First, a few hundred people gathered on Monday Jul. 22 in front of Guanabara palace, the seat of the state government, where leftwing President Dilma Rousseff, her ministers and hundreds of politicians and prelates were welcoming the pope.
Outside the palace the police isolated the demonstrators and put down the protest. Six demonstrators were injured and three were arrested.
On Friday Jul. 26, another protest was held close to the Copacabana beachfront promenade, where the Stations of the Cross were being re-enacted. The demonstrators complained that the papal visit and World Youth Day cost 53 million dollars. The police dispersed them with water cannons and tear gas.
“It was clear that the protests were not going to suddenly end, and with the presence of the pope and so many media outlets, it was very likely that some demonstrations would be organised,” Lesbaupin said.
Hortal said he felt nervous when people began to gather in front of the state government house, on Francis’ first night in Rio.
“It was young people complaining about the way politics are done in Brazil. The main question is corruption; politicians are not in a very good situation. People were there to protest against the governor, but some might also have protested against the pope, and some of the crowd were violent,” he said.
The priest was afraid violent acts might interrupt the religious celebrations.
According to Lesbaupin, the demonstrators wanted a word of support from the pope.
“He gave signs of support to the young people’s demands, we saw it subliminally. Speaking to the politicians, he communicated confidence in young people as the window to the future,” the sociologist said.
In his homilies and speeches in the favela or shantytown of Manguinhos and a hospital for people with drug problems, Francis emphasised the ideas of fraternity, community and social justice.
The pope called on young people to fight against injustice and “never be discouraged” by corruption. In reference to the local policy of pacification of the favelas, he said it would only be possible when efforts were made to integrate the poor areas surrounding the cities.
Lauro Condiran, a 30-year-old pilgrim from Brasilia, hoped that Francis would manage to bring government representatives together to listen to the people.
“The people want health, security and education. The pope will not remain neutral in the face of this situation,” he told IPS.
Hortal recalled that World Youth Days have several times in the past been the scenario of demonstrations, because of their international dimension, such as in Germany in 2005, Australia in 2008 and Spain in 2011.
“There are groups that protest against the government. That happened in Madrid, in Cologne and in Sydney. There are always some people who express their problems,” said the Jesuit.
While social agitation grows in Brazil, Catholicism is losing adherents, many of whom are switching to evangelical churches.
According to the most recent census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, in 2010, out of the population of 190 million that year, 64.6 percent described themselves as Catholics – almost 123 million people. But in 1970 the proportion was 91.8 percent.
The proportion of evangelical Christians, meanwhile, climbed from 5.2 percent of the population in 1970 to 22.2 percent – or 42.3 million people – in 2010.
The state of Rio de Janeiro is the least religious of all. Less than half of the population declare themselves Catholic, and over 15 percent say they have no religion at all.
In Lesbaupin’s view, the pope does not appear to be very concerned with attracting new adherents.
“The loss of Catholics is related to the conservatism of the Church in recent decades, and its lack of openness to young people. But the mere presence of Francis, his cheerfulness and charisma, will have an effect,” said the sociologist.