A Pope for the Poor

Will Francis' personal humility and focus on poverty help revive the church's fortunes on his home continent?


    In the North of Rio de Janeiro is the miserable slum of Manguinhos. It is a stubborn place. Again and again the local government tries to evict the residents in urban cleansings that sweep into the favela with instruments of construction assigned to destruction. The demolitions have grown more desperate as Brazil prepares to play host to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Bulldozers and jackhammers and backhoes shear off sides of buildings, revealing staircases that go nowhere. Exposed to the elements are the red, turquoise and yellow walls that were once living rooms. But many of the people refuse to move. They jerry-build electricity and water supplies to maintain themselves even as rivers of sewage run past the front of what they still call home. Under the rubble, the streets remain visible. They were named for saints.

    In miserable Manguinhos is the even more miserable neighborhood called Varginha. Its tenacity has increased because the Pope is coming to visit. The last Pope to visit a Brazilian favela--John Paul II in 1980, on the first of several trips to the country--helped save it from a similar demolition plan simply by paying it attention. The authorities relented; the bulldozers went away. The people of Varginha are praying that Francis will perform the same miracle. On the front of one house, someone has painted in light blue, "The Pope is coming to Varginha to visit the poor. The poor will be very happy!"

    They know that Francis is the Pope of the poor. Did he not name himself for the son of the rich man from Assisi who gave up everything to walk barely shod, a saint in sackcloth? Has not this new Pope refused to live in his palace? And did he not say that the shepherd of the faithful must smell like his sheep? The astonished whispers are everywhere, not just Brazil, before his first scheduled foreign trip since his election and his first return to his home continent. A Pope for the forgotten; a Pope for the godforsaken. And not just among Catholics: Anglicans are thinking of a compact of churches to fight poverty, and evangelicals see Francis as a Pontiff they can deal with. Atheists are gob-smacked that he has said some of them might merit heaven. A Pope for everyone?

    Brazil may prove to be a showcase for the powers of this humble Pope and the fresh face he is putting on the ancient papacy. In this, the most populous of Catholic countries on the most Catholic of continents, he faces in microcosm the challenges the church is confronted with around the world: the magnetism of Protestant evangelism and the temptations of secular culture. And it is in this enormous Latin American nation that the Pope of the poor may just begin to have the destabilizing influence that John Paul II had in Eastern Europe: to turn the tide against the rivals of the church and re-establish its primacy in places where it once held incontestable sway. Already Brazil wonders if Francis might exacerbate the protests that swept its cities last month. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina is probably grateful that the Pontiff, whom she used to deride when he was a Cardinal, decided against visiting his native land as it prepares for a crucial round of elections.

    A Gentle Cunning

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