Rio de Janeiro – Despite heavy security and a cold rain, Pope Francis waded into the cheering crowds Thursday and hugged and kissed residents young and old in one of Rio de Janeiro's favelas, Varghina.
He blessed the altar of the shoebox of a church that serves the community and prayed before a replica of Brazil's patron saint, the Virgin of Aparecida.
In remarks to a crowd of several thousand Varghina residents, who slushed 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."
He blasted what he said was the "culture of selfishness and individualism" in calling for greater efforts to fight hunger and poverty.
"No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself," Francis said.
On the eve of his visit, excitement filled Varghina's stormy, gray air.
Residents hard at work to host the high-profile international event buzzed among the foreign visitors and press in their humble community located in Rio’s North Zone. The pontiff is visiting the favela Thursday morning as a part of his weeklong stay in Rio for World Youth Day, where over 2 million are taking part in the activities hosted by the Argentinean pontiff.
The Varginha favela is a part of the Complexo de Manguinhos, a group of 15 communities with a population of about 36,000. Though dirt poor, the neighborhood has a strong Catholic presence – the Catholic Church was directly involved with the development of Manguinhos in the 1950s. Manguinhos is one of the most in-need areas in Rio de Janeiro, longtime victim of government negligence and poor sanitary conditions.
“The expectations are big here. In Varginha, Manguinhos, the Pope’s visit will be more euphoric,” explained Darcilia Alves, a 54-year-old Manguinhos native who is a domestic worker and volunteer in local health initiatives.
In recent years, crime rates have lowered in the community sometimes referred to as the “Gaza Strip” alluding to the frequent violence between different factions of drug traffickers. But most residents have no involvement with such crime; Alves hopes the Pope’s visit will challenge stereotypes that the community only has criminals and violence.
“It will value residents of the community. It will be really positive, after all these years of being abandoned I think it will change the opinion of Manguinhos,” she said, referring to the historical exclusion and discrimination of favela residents in the city.
“People from here have to be treated with respect and like any other Brazilian citizen,” Alves explained.
Pope Francis’ visit to the humble community that lies outside the city’s famed beach neighborhoods behooves his reputation as “the people’s Pope.”
“He has the means to live in luxury and chooses to live simply,” said Luiz Soares, a social educator and coordinator at the Manguinhos Park Library.
“He’s simple and tranquil, and doesn’t like excess, like us,” he explained.
According to his itinerary, the Pope will first visit the small chapel of São Jerónimo, where he will address a group of 45 Manguinhos residents, mostly children and elderly. Then he will visit an average Manguinhos home, which as of Wednesday had yet to be selected. He will finish up the visit with an event at a local soccer field, which will be open to the public. Organizers were concerned by the logistics here, since viewing spots are limited and people were starting to show up the night before.
The Leivas are devout Catholics who live several hundred yards from the São Jerónimo church and football stadium and hope their colorful two-story home, adorned with Catholic imagery, will be the selected one as the “typical Manguinhos home” for the Pope’s visit.
“This is a typical Manguinhos home,” beamed Olga Maria da Silva Leiva, who explained her parents built it themselves in the 1950s. Today, the home boasts several bedrooms, two living rooms and a spacious kitchen and dining area.
“We really hope our house is chosen!” said her 26-year-old daughter Karen between smiles.
The community as a whole agrees that the visit is positive, but some residents and other activists from the city are taking advantage of the spotlight on Manguinhos to highlight some of the social issues that plague the community - there is a protest scheduled to coincide with the Pope’s visit to the slums.
In recent years, for better and for worse, Manguinhos has been greatly affected by government investment. While the complex saw millions in investments from the federal government’s Growth and Acceleration Program (PAC) - which resulted in a new train station, civic center, housing projects, library, and a women’s center – other less glamorous but more pleading issues with sanitation have been ignored.
In addition to commemorating the lives of three Manguinhos residents who have died this year due to unsanitary conditions and protesting forced evictions and demolitions of homes to make way for the city’s development projects, the scheduled protest seeks to bring attention to the differences between government pledges and actual implementation. The neglected community has received four separate pledges from the Rio state government and a sewage company committing over two billion dollars to sanitation projects ― all with little to no results.
“We want to call attention to the situation of serious violations of human rights that have been committed against the communities of Manguinhos and other favela communities in this northern region of Rio de Janeiro, such as poor sanitary and living conditions and forced evictions due to the city’s dominant projects for the international mega-events,” said Fernando Soares, a Manguinhos resident and Coordinator of the Manguinhos Human Rights Laboratory.
Luiz Soares explained the longer term goals of the community and said he hopes Pope Francis’ visit results in an increased attention for the community.
“Our wish is that basic services arrive to all of the Manguinhos Complex and that these basic services continue to arrive in all parts of the city,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.