Pope Calls on Youth to Become Activists as He Bids Rio Goodbye

Pope Francis’s first trip abroad wrapped up in Rio de Janeiro yesterday with the pontiff calling on Catholic youth to be more activist in the wake of protests that roiled Latin America’s largest country in the past month.

“The young people in the streets want to be protagonists of change; please don’t let others be the protagonists, it should be you,” Francis told a crowd of millions in Copacabana. “You have the future in your hands, and the future will arrive. I ask that you be protagonists, overcoming apathy and offer a Christian response to social and political worries.”

The address followed a speech July 27 where the Argentine-born pope said dialog is always preferable to violent protest. He told residents of a slum on July 25 not to allow corruption to extinguish hope for change and yesterday told young volunteers to rebel against societal norms and embrace traditional values such as commitment and marriage.

Francis’s visit for the week-long World Youth Day comes on the heels of Brazil’s largest protests in two decades over transport prices, public spending priorities and corruption. During the trip, the pope made clear that Catholic political engagement is legitimate, according to Virgilio Arraes, a professor at the International Relations Institute at the University of Brasilia.

“The pope’s message is that, yes, the church has to participate,” Arraes said by phone. “The church can’t remain isolated on the spiritual side. The religious community needs to complain that people don’t have adequate schools, hospitals or decent public transport.”

Copacabana to Ipanema

Protests continued during the pope’s trip, with the police using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters outside the Guanabara palace in Rio, where he met with authorities on his first day there. Dozens of demonstrators on July 27 railed against government spending on the visit while others joined a feminist march from the Rio beaches of Copacabana to Ipanema.

The demonstrations were smaller than those seen last month when more than a million people took to the streets in a movement that began in reaction to bus fare increases. Protests expanded to encompass corruption, poor health care and education as well as income inequality.

The protesters must be heard, the pope said in an interview aired last night by Globo television, adding he is not familiar with all their demands.

“A young man who doesn’t protest doesn’t suit me,” he said in the interview. “A young man is essentially a nonconformist, and that is a very beautiful thing. You need to listen to young people, giving them outlets to express themselves and ensure they don’t get manipulated.”

Demands

President Dilma Rousseff during the pope’s visit said increased unrest reflects demands for greater quality of life after her predecessor and political mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva lifted 40 million people from poverty. Even with those advances, Brazil ranks 14th worst in income equality, below Nigeria and Russia, among 154 countries listed in the World Bank’s 2013 World Development Indicators.

“The pope is in a sense endorsing protests against corruption,” Paul Freston, religion and politics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said by phone. “There won’t be large-scale protests again until next year just before the World Cup, when the pope’s words might be remembered and encourage people to take part.”

The 2014 World Cup will take place in cities across Brazil, with Rio hosting the finals. Rio also will hold the 2016 Olympic Games.

Brazil Challenges

Francis’s trip highlighted the challenges Brazil faces to host global events. The pope’s convoy got stuck in traffic when he arrived and the subway lost power one evening, preventing pilgrims from reaching events. A field prepared for the final Mass was flooded by rainfall, forcing organizers to move the event to Copacabana.

The final Mass attracted about 3 million people, according to estimates made by organizers of World Youth Day.

People from nations across the globe blanketed Copacabana beach after camping out Saturday night to hear the pope’s words. Rousseff, her Argentine counterpart Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Bolivia’s leader Evo Morales attended Mass where Francis told the faithful that he is personally counting on them to spread God’s word.

“Everyone has to be a protagonist of transformation, and political issues and religious issues are united in that sense,” said Jose Eudes, 24, a seminary student from Brasilia who traveled to Rio for the celebrations. “We are not indifferent to everything that happens in culture or the state, and we need to work for a better world.”

Church Leaders

Francis used his visit to indicate Brazilian church leaders should do more to stem the exodus to Pentecostal churches, according to Tom Quigley, former policy adviser for Latin American and Caribbean affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The share of Latin Americans who are Catholic fell to 72 percent in 2010 from 90 percent a century earlier, according to a March report from the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals, part of the Protestant movement, made up 22 percent of Brazil’s population in the 2010 census compared with 15 percent a decade earlier.

The pope urged bishops to embrace poverty and humility as he insisted on greeting crowds from an open-air pope-mobile and traveled in a hatchback rather than limo or other luxury car.

World Youth Day “enabled Francis to express his papacy in a way he hasn’t yet been able to,” Quigley said by phone from Annandale, Virginia. “This was the most full-blown opportunity for him to be himself, to preach the way he has developed, show his own approach to the papacy.”

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