The Pope of the Poor: Francis Makes Brazil’s Favelas His First Stop

Pope Francis visits Brazil, once a stronghold of Catholicism but now a country where the faith is very much at a crossroads

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Ricardo Moraes / REUTERS

A boy flies a kite on the roof of the Chapel of Sao Sebastiao, where Pope Francis is expected to visit during his trip to a Varginha slum in the Manguinhos complex of Rio de Janeiro on July 16, 2013

Correction appended: July 22, 2013, 4:19 a.m. E.T.

If Pope Francis is going to fashion himself the Pope of the poor, he could find few places in the world better to start than Varginha. Located within the favela of Manguinhos, which in turn lies in the northern part of Rio de Janeiro, it is a miserable place, where most residents get by on roughly $156 a month. On July 25, Francis will visit the neighborhood to deliver a blessing at its small stone chapel. It’s not hard to imagine him afterward, stepping out onto the chapel’s neatly swept patio and pausing to take in the view. To the left, open sewage runs through alleyways and children fly cheap paper kites on the piles of uncollected rubbish that function as the neighborhood’s only playground. To the right and across the train tracks, a vast field of rubble dotted with semidemolished houses — many of them still occupied, their exteriors torn off to reveal the turquoise and red walls of former residents’ kitchens and living rooms — stretches as far as the eye can see. But if Varginha offers a vivid example of the crushing poverty, uneven development and profound class divisions that plague Brazil even as it attempts to turn itself into a model of South American prosperity — issues which sparked massive protests earlier this summer — both the neighborhood and the favela in which it’s located also embody another set of tensions: the ones Francis’ own church faces.

The occasion for Francis’ first international trip since becoming Pope — and, indeed, a triumphant return to Latin America for a Pontiff who was formerly archbishop of Buenos Aires — is World Youth Day (WYD), a biennial gathering that brings millions of young Catholic pilgrims from around the world together for prayer and fellowship. In mid-June, the event’s offices in downtown Rio were a hive of activity, complete with constantly looping videos of wholesome youngsters singing about Christ and talking animatedly about their faith. Inés San Martin, from Argentina, volunteered at the last WYD in Madrid in 2011, and says she signed up to work again well before Pope Francis’ election. But she admits that the new Pope has motivated a lot more Latin American pilgrims to come, especially from her home country. “At home, people are very excited about him. They see Pope Francis as someone who will talk about justice and poverty, and who is very direct. He doesn’t care if he’s speaking to President Obama or the Queen of England — he’ll speak his truth.”

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That’s certainly the hope among the people of Manguinhos, where someone had painted on a wall in light blue letters the words, “The Pope is coming to Varginha to visit the poor. The poor will be very happy!” Part of the reason for that happiness is historic: in 1981 a visit by Pope John Paul II helped stopped evictions in another favela, and there is a sense that perhaps this Pope could do the same thing, especially as the demolitions accelerate in preparation for the coming World Cup and Summer Olympics. But both his own actions in favor of the poor and the recent protests have increased the sense that Pope Francis will speak to the language it wants to hear. In an interview with Brazilian television, Rio’s archbishop Orani João Tempesta said young people “want a new Brazil, one that is more just and socially conscious. That agrees with what we, the bishops, are also looking for.”

Some improvements have been made to the neighborhood in honor of the papal visit — sidewalks paved, overgrown trees cut back, trash removed. Still, the cosmetic changes draw skepticism from some residents angry that the favela’s profound needs — sanitation, health care, better educational facilities — are ignored. Pointing to a hastily planted vegetable garden that, in honor of Francis’ arrival, was constructed over a former garbage dump, Fernando Soares, an activist and Manguinhos resident, scoffs. “Yes, it’s pretty, but no one can eat the things grown there because the soil underneath is toxic. And wouldn’t it be better to have spent the time and money on things like sanitation and health care?”

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And safety. Prior to October, Manguinhos was considered one of the more dangerous places in the city. In fact, battles between rival drug gangs, or between gangs and police, were frequent and bloody enough that one area in the favela was known as the Gaza Strip. “When you look at the previous murder rates, it was a war, a civil war,” says Pedro Dantas, spokesman for the Police Pacification Units (UPP), which occupied Manguinhos eight months ago in a military operation and kicked the drug gangs out. Since then, things have improved somewhat — heavily armed police are a visible presence on the street, and gun violence and open drug sales have largely disappeared. Nevertheless, because the second stage of pacification — flooding the area with social services after the drug lords and soldiers have been driven out or underground — has been only marginally implemented (there is now a library, and after-school programs in martial arts and swimming have been started for kids), mistrust of the UPP runs high, the favela is still considered dangerous, and some local police and church authorities wish that the Vatican had chosen a more stable neighborhood to visit. But Sergeant Bruno Madeira, a supervisor within the Manguinhos UPP, views the choice as proof of progress. “I think it’s a sign that we’re doing well, that things are changing here.”

In Manguinhos and throughout the country, things are certainly changing for the Catholic Church. Although Brazil is still the largest Catholic country in the world, the percentage of Brazilians who identify as Catholics has fallen precipitously, from 83% in 1991 to 68% in 2010. Some of that drop is due to growing secularism, but many of the Brazilians who leave have joined evangelical churches instead: in the same period the number of evangelicals has more than doubled, from 9% to more than 20%.

That change too is reflected in Manguinhos. In addition to the Varginha chapel, the favela, with a population of 35,000, has just one other Catholic church, São Daniel Profeta (which, remarkably enough, is housed in a 1960 building designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer). Evangelical churches, however, can be found on nearly every street: the Assembly of God, the Church of Life and Light, the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Brazil. From their storefronts, they advertise daily services, Bible studies and “family healing,” while São Daniel draws only 60 or 70 people to Sunday Mass (and the Varginha chapel not even that).

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Father Leandro Tavares, director of Propedéutico Rainha dos Apostolos seminary, as well as the person in charge of pastoral preparation for World Youth Day, recognizes the problem. “The faith hasn’t changed,” he says, “but many things around it have. We have to speak to the new generation in their own language, to adapt and get better at speaking to them.”

Within São Daniel, they expect Pope Francis to do just that. On a recent Sunday, the five members — aged 13 to 20 — of the church rock band were practicing the songs they would perform later that day at Mass. Each of them — the next generation that Francis’ church needs to hang onto — said he thought this new Pope might mean real change for the favela, and all of them planned to be at the papal blessing on July 25. “I never imagined he would come here, to a place like this,” says lead singer Humberto de Almeida. “Manguinhos is seen badly because of all the poverty and violence. But maybe now the world will see that there are good, honest people living here too.”

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An earlier version of this article misstated the amount residents at Manguinhos live on each month. It is $156, not $125.