Missteps by Brazil Mar Visit by Pope
The New York Times: July 24, 2013
RIO DE JANEIRO — Pope Francis celebrated his first public Mass on Wednesday at one of Latin America’s largest shrines, asking Catholics to shun the “ephemeral idols” of material success, power and pleasure, but his visit to Brazil continued to be marked by tension over blunders by its Brazilian organizers.
The missteps began minutes after Francis arrived in Rio on Monday, when his small motorcade got stuck on a crowded thoroughfare, exposing the pope to a mob scene of people trying to touch him through the open window of his car. On Tuesday, Rio’s subway system broke down for two hours, leaving thousands gathered here for a conference of Catholic youth scrambling to reach a seaside Mass.
Rio’s political authorities have also faced scrutiny over their handling of street demonstrations around the pope’s visit. They acknowledged using undercover agents to infiltrate the protests but denied claims that their intelligence officers were to blame for violence, including the throwing of firebombs.
“I think our governor here is an idiot,” said Robson Lopes Landaw, 56, a lawyer who watched the Monday protests from his window. Sérgio Cabral, Rio’s governor, has been grappling for weeks with demonstrators voicing anger over issues including police brutality and Mr. Cabral’s costly use of helicopters to shuttle between residences.
Like others in Rio, which is the host of the Vatican’s World Youth Day this week and is preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, Mr. Lopes Landaw questioned whether the city is ready for the strain of such large events. “There is an open spigot of money coming in but it is badly administered,” he said.
For his first trip abroad since he was selected as pope in March, Francis chose Brazil, which has more Catholics than any other nation, to emphasize Latin America’s importance to the church. At Aparecida, a city that is home to a massive shrine to Brazil’s patron saint, the pope offered an upbeat Mass. “The dragon, evil, is present in our history, but it does not have the upper hand,” he said, referring to the Book of Revelation. “The one with the upper hand is God.”
The pope ended his appearance in Aparecida by switching from Portuguese to Spanish, smiling and clearly enjoying the moment as he connected to thousands gathered in the rain to see him. He said he planned to return to Brazil in 2017. Later on Wednesday, the pope returned to Rio, where he visited a hospital for drug addicts. At the hospital, he criticized supporters of decriminalizing drug use and called traffickers “merchants of death.”
Commentators have focused attention on how Francis was getting a taste for the challenges which Rio’s residents face daily.
“As in the case of thousands of others in Rio de Janeiro, the pope ended up in a traffic jam on Presidente Vargas,” Elio Gaspari, a newspaper columnist, wrote about the frenzied scene on Monday. He noted that among the street chaos, Francis had calmly blessed a child thrust in his direction. “He was just a man without fear of the people.”
Playing down security concerns, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters that the pope wanted “direct contact with the people” and not a “militarization of the situation.” But the church substituted a closed vehicle for an open popemobile for Francis’s Wednesday ride through the working-class neighborhood of Tijuca.
Police officials on Wednesday again rejected claims that their own intelligence agents were inciting confrontation at protests, with some demonstrators contending that this was a strategy for cracking down on street dissent. Still, the revelation that Rio’s security authorities had infiltrated protest movements with undercover agents provoked disgust among some. João Paulo Soares, 21, a student, said the police’s tactics violated the right of “freedom of expression.” But he welcomed the visit of Francis, an Argentine-born Jesuit with spartan habits. “He is revolutionary, like we are,” he said.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, suggested that it was time to move on and make the remainder of the pope’s trip, which continues through Sunday, as smooth as possible. “Any explanation seems unnecessary and useless at this moment,” he said. “What we need to do is apologize.”
Taylor Barnes and Paula Ramon contributed reporting.
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