Pope Francis has made his strongest condemnation yet of inequality when he used a visit to a Brazilian slum to denounce the “culture of selfishness” that is widening the gap between rich and poor.
The first Latin American pope, who once worked with slum dwellers in his home city of Buenos Aires, expressed solidarity with the residents of the Varginha favela in northern Rio de Janeiro, where he received a rapturous welcome.
“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 a crowd who had gathered on a football field to hear him speak. “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.”
Despite security concerns, the pope walked through the community, which was once part of a region contested by drug gangs that was so violent it was known as the Gaza Strip.
Varginha was “pacified” in January by special police units who maintain a presence in the community, where Francis stopped to pray at a small local church.
The setting underscored the pope’s focus on poor and peripheral communities, where the Catholic church has been losing followers in recent years to US-style evangelical groups.
On Thursday, the pontiff unleashed the most powerful and politically loaded rhetoric of his trip, attacking the “culture of selfishness and individualism” and urging more 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,” he said.
The throngs were largely kept at bay by security barriers, but the pope kissed babies and shook hands with well-wishers. Police helicopters buzzed overheads, and police snipers watched the crowd from rooftops.
In a mass the previous day, the pope had urged Catholics to resist the “ephemeral idols” of money, power, success and pleasure. He also gave a sharply worded condemnation of moves to legalise drug use during a visit on Wednesday to a rehabilitation centre in Brazil.
“A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalisation of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America,” the pontiff said.
Those comments ran counter to a growing movement in Latin America to liberalise sales of marijuana and other narcotics following decades of a murderous and largely ineffectual war against drugs in the region.
On Thursday evening, Pope Francis was expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to a Youth Day mass on the iconic Copacabana beach resort, which is better known for its sun worshippers.
Catholics from around the world have flocked to Rio de Janeiro to hear and see Francis, whose visit for the World Youth Day festival coincides with a wave of protest in Brazil over inequality, corruption, high prices and low standards of public service.
A massive stage decorated with a crucifix and flanked by giant screens and speakers has been erected on sands usually occupied by beach footballers, volleyball players and bikini-clad tourists.
On Thursday, however, the Catholic faithful who filled the area were shivering under umbrellas as Rio experienced one of the coldest and wettest days of this southern hemisphere winter.
Many had travelled for days by bus or plane to see a pope that they admire for his spirituality, lack of ostentation and strong emphasis on the poor. For many Brazilian Catholics, these qualities are particularly appreciated at a time when more than a million people have taken to the streets to condemn local politicians and businessmen who are accused of profiting at society’s expense.
Giovana Mendes was one of the millions who took to the streets last month in protests at what she described as “the shameful political situation in Brazil”, but the 17-year-old from Parana state said she was filled with hope and excitement to see a Latin American pope.
“It’s indescribable, marvellous. I have butterflies in my stomach. It’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “In my life, he is the best pope. He’s for the people.”
Others had flown from the pope’s home nation, Argentina. Maria Fernanda Luciani and Angelina Gordillo starting planning the trip soon after Jorge Mario Bergoglio – as Francis was previously known – was chosen as pope.
“We are so proud,” said Luciani. “I feel so much emotion and happiness. Francis offers hope for the youth and for the church.”
The focus of the pope’s visit has been on drawing more young people into the church. Brazil is the world’s most populous Catholic nation, but in recent years the Vatican has been alarmed by the rise of secularism and an exodus of worshippers to US-style evangelical groups.
In the 1980s, nearly 90% of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholic. Today, however, census data suggests only 65% do so, while 22% describe themselves as evangelical, and 10% say they are not religious.
Many expressed hope that the new pope would offer a change of style and focus that would help to reverse the decline.
“He’s very humble. He likes to speak the language of young people,” said Renan Maia Londrino, a 22-year-old from Parana state in Brazil. “I hope he can mobilise young people who are outside the church. This is an important moment for the entire world.”
The authorities appear to have struggled with the conflicting desire of the pope to be as accessible as possible and the government’s instinct to step up security at a time of heightened protest.
Another demonstration was planned for Thursday evening a few kilometres further along the coast outside the home of the unpopular Rio state governor, Sérgio Cabral, in Leblon. Protests at the same location earlier in the week were broken up with rubber bullets and teargas.
Although the pope has been careful not to take sides, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, said her government needed to work closely with the Vatican “against a common enemy – inequality” and to do more to improve the lives of its people.
Although Francis had a somewhat conservative reputation in his home nation, Argentina, up until he was chosen as pope, his comments prior to his visit to Brazil on “savage capitalism” and the “dictatorship of the economy” heartened many on the left and those who joined the recent protests.
“The church fights with us. Pope Francisco fights with the people in these demonstrations,” said Walace Luiz Herbst, a pilgrim from Espírito Santo. “Christ, the pope and the church won’t sit quiet about injustice and inequality.”