RIO DE JANEIRO — The “slum pope” returned to the slum on Thursday as Pope Francis visited one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, telling its residents that the wealthy must do more to end the “culture of selfishness” that has left the poor on the margins of society.
Francis, who has said he wants a church that looks out for the less fortunate, received a rapturous welcome during his visit to Varginha, a neighborhood in northern Rio that’s part of a violent region known by locals as the Gaza Strip.
Despite heavy security and a cold rain, Francis waded into the cheering crowds and hugged and kissed residents young and old before blessing the altar at the tiny church that serves the community. He prayed before a statue of Brazil’s patron saint, the Virgin of Aparecida, and met with a family in their squat yellow home.
“He gave each of us a rosary, he took photos with everyone and embraced each one,” said Diego Rodrigues, a 26-year-old friend of the da Penha family who received the papal visit. “I think everyone but the pope was speechless!”
Francis brought a message of hope, following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II who visited two such favelas during a 1980 trip to Brazil and Mother Teresa who visited Varginha itself in 1972. Her Missionaries of Charity order have kept a presence in the shantytown ever since.
In remarks to a crowd of several thousand Varghina residents, who plodded through a muddy soccer field to welcome him, Francis acknowledged that young people in particular have a sensitivity toward injustice.
“You are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good,” Francis told the crowd. “To you and 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.”
It was a clear reference to the violent protests that paralyzed parts of the country in recent weeks as Brazilians furious over rampant corruption and inefficiency within the country’s political class took to the streets.
Francis blasted what he said was a “culture of selfishness and individualism” that permeates society today, demanding that those with money and power share their wealth and resources to fight hunger and poverty.
He added a last-minute tweak to his busy schedule, meeting with pilgrims from his native Argentina at Rio’s cathedral Thursday afternoon. He told the youngsters to get out into the streets and spread their faith, saying that a church that doesn’t go out and preach becomes a simple NGO, or nongovernmental organization. “And the church cannot be an NGO!” he said to wild applause.