Pope Francis’ Brazil is very different from Benedict’s European fantasy
Posted by Mauricio Savarese
Disclaimer: I am not religious, but I have always been anthropologically interested in the subject. That is why my final project at uni in 2006 is a radio documentary on Islam in my home town. I also made a big effort to cover this year’s conclave at the Vatican. I am keener on the political than on the theological side.
It was a grey and rainy afternoon at the Guarulhos air base in 2007 when elderly Pope Benedict 16 arrived in Brazil for his first trip overseas. The weather said a little about the general status of country he was visiting. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had just been reelected after a first term praised for social investments and tainted by a massive kick-backs scandal in Congress. Rio had just lost an Olympic bid without reaching the final ballot. Brazilians were far from full employment and the Latin American hype was on Chile. The country didn’t make much news internationally because major outlets were interested in Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Any success in Brazil was credited to the booming world economy. Services were still bad, but no one took to the streets.
Who could ever believe that Pope was really coming to Brazil again?
Quite a different Brazil his Argentine successor Francis is about to find this week. It is a country which was in a big hype, seems to be leaving that status because of the recent protests and the sluggish economy, but might go back to the spotlight as the World Cup approaches and part of the economic hysteria fades. From a welcoming country to any pontiff it has become a place where his safety is a concern to President Dilma Rousseff herself. Whatever happens will be scrutinized all over as a sign on if Brazilians regrouped after the difficulties in the Confederations Cup. The World Youth Day might draw about 1,5 million people to Rio de Janeiro.
Of course that is seen as a Catholic Woodstock. But Brazil is nothing like 2007.
As a man who found quite a different Vatican from that of 2007, Jorge Mario Bergoglio could do fairly better than his predecessor in impressing the Brazilian crowds. Coming to Latin America in his first trip abroad is also a big sign of where Joseph Ratzinger failed his faithful: Roman Catholic influence is also about figures, and losing support in Latin America could cost a lot globally. After successive crisis under Benedict, Francis will have to show there is more to him than the simplicity of his gestures so he can get some fans back to the Vatican. Being Latin American is surely a plus.
But there is no guarantee he will avoid protests during his one week stay. Brazil feels different now.
Ok, somethings never change…
Not because there is anything particular against Bergoglio yet. The main reason is that of the Confederations Cup protests — there is a spotlight on Brazil and protesters want to use that. I think the protests against the Pope might make a standard for the World Cup: it is a really big event, unlike the Confederations Cup, and supporters are much more on the streets than the critics. That means smaller demonstrations, but yet present next to where all the action takes place. If it were Pope Benedict, a man of controversial opinions that took on rivals of Latin American left-leaning Theology of Liberation, that might be different.
Benedict came in 2007 to help solve a problem for the Catholic Church. The last Pope seemed to think he could tame Brazilians with a bit of conservative and gestureless European church — that coming from a man who chose to be called by the name of the saint of Europe. Brazilians didn’t relate to him at all. And I say that as a reporter who followed most of his appearances in Brazilian soil. What could the Roman Church offer to the country with the most Catholics in the world? A country which until recently had no saints born there, fewer cardinals than in the sixties and a growing challenge by evangelist groups?
That is for Francis to answer. Answering that in such a transformative moment for Brazil is yet a bigger challenge.
Ratzinger’s visit to Brazil was so dull that the only thing many people remember, besides his giving Brazil their first saint, was the shock after President Lula shook hands with him instead of kissing his Fisherman’s ring. It took days for our press to understand Lula had welcomed Benedict as a head of State — therefore making a private Catholic gesture in public would be totally inadequate. Unlike his younger days, in which he helped fund Latin American students in Germany, he had earned the fame of religious “panzer” by silencing clerical friends of many of those on the streets.
The now Emerit Pope never came back. Neither did many Brazilians — Roman Catholics were 65% of the population then and now they are 57% of our 200 million inhabitants, according to an important pollster.
Pope Francis already paraded through the streets of Rio with no more than the habitual (small) protections. He understands Brazilians are more about touch than listening and that is why he reduced his protections. Of course that warmth could turn against him at a moment many organizations and individuals try to get their 15 minutes for protesting it out. But Brazilians are used to carrying their icons on their shoulders and nothing bad ever happened to them.
These streets in Rio would be almost dull that six years ago.
Now they are more of an uncharted territory. But they are still closer to streets Pope Francis already knows in his Latin America than those in Europe his predecessor was keen on.