For the second time in his first 24 hours in Brazil, Pope John Paul II challenged his host, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to do more to alleviate Brazil’s mammoth poverty.
The pope’s first public statement, on greeting Cardoso at the airport Thursday, was a strong condemnation of this nation’s gap between rich and poor - by some accounts the widest in the world. At is closed-door meeting with the president Friday, he repeated his concerns, calling special attention to the clamor for land reform, a particular frustration for Brazil’s president.
“It surprised me,” said Frei Betto, a leftist Sao Paulo priest and author. “Since the pope’s visit is supposedly meant to focus on the family, I did not think he’d emphasize poverty. But he was emphasizing it even when he was talking to reporters on the plane. He has come here, once again, like a prophet, a biblical prophet condemning injustice.”
Cardoso, who is gearing up to run for a second presidential term next year, has spent his first period in office concentrating on fiscal reform, a goal he says is fundamental for poverty to recede. In the last few months, he has been talking more about social needs, but his critics say he should have done more long ago.
“Of course, what the pope said is a problem for Cardoso,” said Frei Betto. “He must be very hurt.”
Cardoso didn’t appear in any pain, however. Smiling confidently, he told reporters after the meeting that the pope had appealed for a more just society, and that “the Brazilian government joins this appeal.”
Some Roman Catholic scholars in Brazil said they think the pope’s impact in calling for change will be limited. Despite what they agreed was his real concern, they noted he has maintained close ties with some of Brazil’s most conservative prelates, including his host, Rio Archbishop Eugenio Sales, who calls himself Pope John Paul’s “Xerox copy.”
In naming 32 of Brazil’s 56 archbishops over the past 19 years, John Paul has tended toward replacing “progressive” bishops favoring the socially committed Liberation Theology with men of considerably less activist leanings.
Perhaps because of his frail health, the pope’s concern for Brazil’s poor has not been accompanied, so far, by the kind of direct contact with the underprivileged that marked his past foreign trips.
On his way to meet with Cardoso, John Paul’s motorcade stopped for a few minutes at the bottom of a hillside favela - one of Rio’s sprawling slums - where thousands of people had lined up, waiting hours to see him. The pope rolled down the window of his car and waved before moving on.