- By Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer
Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is assistant managing editor for online at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor's degree from U.C. Berkeley, and master's degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
Today Pope Francis paid a visit to one of Brazil’s notorious favelas, the slums that house more than 20 percent of Brazil’s population. Walking amongst the shanty town — an area so dangerous it’s been dubbed Rio’s Gaza Strip, Francis seemed at home, telling residents not to give up hope, and doling out kisses to the multiple babies passed his way for a Pope’s blessing. It’s the kind of ministry — surrounded by the poor and the marginalized — that Francis seems to have sought out his whole career. The so-called "Slum Pope" was known for making regular jaunts into similar neighborhoods in Argentina, washing and kissing the feet of drug users there — but he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio then.
As Pope, Francis has worked hard to make sure he still gets regular up-close and personal contact with the faithful. He’s been something of a one-man wrecking ball when it comes to some of the more excessive trappings of the papacy, and his humility has won him legions of adoring fans — many of whom turned up in the streets of Rio this week to swarm his famously non-bulletproof, open-topped car and stop traffic, causing security officers to begin shoving them out of the way.
Which raises the question: now that Francis is no longer a relatively-obscure Argentine Cardinal, but the Bishop of Rome, should he still be pursuing this kind of hands-on evangelizing when it may be coming at a cost to the very people he’s hoping to serve?
Consider the resources that went into providing security for the protection-averse Francis (Brazilian authorities tried to pressure him to return to the bulletproof car, but to no avail): Brazil mobilized 14,000 troops, according to the Financial Times, to ensure no harm came to the Pope during his visit, as well as more than 7,000 police. The Rio newspaper O Globo said in May that security for the visit would cost 118 million reals, or over $52 million dollars. Estimates for the overall cost of the trip and the weeklong youth festival range from $145 million to $159 million, according to AP.
The protests that recently swept across Brazil were in part driven by concerns about excessive, corrupt government spending on public events, like the World Cup, and Francis’s visit, too, has drawn its (much smaller) share of protesters, who were promptly shut down with tear gas and water cannons. (Even these protesters, however, wanted to be clear that their frustrations were aimed at the government — not Francis himself.)
The favela Francis visited today, known as Varginha, was the beneficiary of some improvements ahead of the Pope’s arrival: sidewalks were paved, overgrown trees pared back and trash was removed. More significantly, the electrical system along the road Francis will walk on while there is being replaced. These are good things, as they go, and point to what a little bit of attention from a person of importance can do for typically marginalized areas. But they’re also cosmetic. One resident pointed out to Time magazine a particularly ludicrous example of the kind of spending to gussy up the place that will leave no lasting benefits for residents once Francis is gone:
"Pointing to a hastily planted vegetable garden that, in honor of Francis’ arrival, was constructed over a former garbage dump, Fernando Soares, an activist and Manguinhos resident, scoffs. "Yes, it’s pretty, but no one can eat the things grown there because the soil underneath is toxic. And wouldn’t it be better to have spent the time and money on things like sanitation and health care?"
There are of course upsides to Francis’s no-barriers style that can’t be accounted for just by looking at the numbers, as this touching quote from the Los Angeles Times illustrates:
"No one of any importance whatsoever has ever come to our community before, and definitely not anyone from another country," said Jose da Costa Oliveira, a 67-year-old carpenter… "And now we have the pope."
And it wasn’t the Pope’s decision to beef up his security team with enough troops at the ready to invade a small country. He’s chilled, his spokesman says:
"We are going with much serenity," said Rev. Federico Lombardi before the trip, according to AP. Lombardi also told reporters that "the pope wants direct contact with the people," not "a militarization of the situation."
In embracing as much contact as possible between himself and the faithful, and maintaining a sense of humility, Francis is not just acting on his own behalf: he’s also setting standards of behavior for the rest of the church.When he carries his own suitcases, or drives around in a Ford Focus these choices are nothing but admirable, as is his dedication to the lowliest. But now that he’s Pope, governments will also take matters of Francis’ comfort and security perhaps to another level that he himself would have them do — and that takes resources. It’s not an easy balance to strike.