Pope Francis’s relentless pace on his tour of Brazil is wearing out his aides.
The 76-year-old Argentine Jesuit, who lost most of one lung following an infection in his youth, has been acting like a man half his age during his first international trip as pope, adding in events at the last minute to his already full schedule and gamely going with the flow after heavy rains forced major changes in the World Youth Day agenda.
His spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, said such vigorous activity has been the norm at the Vatican since Francis arrived, saying the usually staid bureaucrats were getting “stressed out” by his pace – and that that was a good thing.
But he quipped: “I’m happy we’re half-way through because if it were any longer I’d be destroyed.”
Francis yesterday added two unscheduled events to an already full day: a morning mass with 300 seminarians from the region, and then a meeting at Rio’s cathedral with 30,000 Argentine pilgrims.
Asked when Francis would return to his home country, Mr Lombardi said there were no plans for a trip to Argentina next year, as had been widely expected.
He said the pope planned to visit another continent as he has been to Brazil this year and, as he announced unexpectedly on Wednesday, will be returning in 2017 to mark the 300th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the Virgin of Aparecida, Brazil’s patron saint.
Mr Lombardi did not say which continent might get a papal visit in 2014, but mentioned Africa, Asia or the Holy Land as possibilities.
Francis, dubbed the “slum pope” for his work with the poor, had earlier received a rapturous welcome from one of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent shantytowns and demanded the world’s wealthy end the injustices that have left the poor on the margins of society.
The visit to Varginha came hours before the pope was to preside over the opening of World Youth Day in a far different setting: Rio’s Copacabana beach.
Amid the stench of raw sewage and the shrieks of residents, Francis made his way through Varginha, part of a region so violent it is known as the Gaza Strip. He seemed entirely at home, wading into the cheering crowds, kissing residents young and old and telling them the Catholic Church was on their side.
It was a message aimed at reversing the trend in much of Latin America that has seen legions of Catholics, most of them poor, leaving the church for Pentecostal and evangelical congregations. These churches have taken up a huge presence in favelas, or shantytowns, like Varginha, attracting souls with nuts and bolts advice on how to improve their lives.
“No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world,” Francis told a crowd of thousands who braved a cold rain and stood in a muddy football field to welcome him. “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’s open-air car was mobbed on a few occasions as he headed into Varginha’s heavily policed streets lined with brick shacks, but he never seemed in danger.
He was showered with gifts as he walked down one of the slum’s main drags without an umbrella to shield him from the rain. A well-wisher gave him a paper lei to hang around his neck and he held up a scarf from his favourite football team, Buenos Aires’ San Lorenzo, that was offered to him.
Later, he will 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.
In an indication of the havoc wreaked by four days of steady showers, organisers made an almost unheard-of change in the festival’s agenda, moving the Saturday vigil and climactic Sunday mass to Copacabana from a rural area 30 miles from the city centre. The area, Guaratiba, has been turned into a massive field of mud, making the overnight camping plans of the pilgrims untenable.