Andre Penner, Associated Press
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.
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 Brazil's political class took to the streets.
Francis received a rapturous welcome during his visit to Varghina, a neighborhood in northern Rio that's part of a super-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 of the shoebox of a church that serves the community. He prayed before a replica 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.
Like Mother Teresa, Francis brought his own personal history to the visit: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio frequently preached in the poverty-wracked slums of his native city, putting into action his belief that the Catholic Church must go to the farthest peripheries to preach and not sit back and wait for the most marginalized to come to Sunday Mass.
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.
He heard from resident Rangler dos Santos Irineu, who said that thanks to his visit, the favela was spruced up: Street lights were installed, the roads were paved and garbage collected.
"Everything that wasn't part of daily life for the residents has been done now, and we hope it will continue," he said.
It was one of the highlights of Francis' weeklong trip to Brazil, his first as pope and one seemingly tailor-made for the first pontiff from the Americas. Later Thursday, he was to preside over a welcoming ceremony on Copacabana Beach for World Youth Day, his first official event with the hundreds of thousands of young people who have flocked to a rain-soaked Rio for the Catholic youth festival.
He added a last-minute tweak to his busy schedule, meeting with pilgrims from his native Argentina at Rio's cathedral Thursday afternoon.
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