By JOHN L. ALEN JR.
Day four of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Brazil was designed to be the one when the pope immersed himself in the social trauma of Latin America, visiting a rural center for young victims of alcohol and drug addiction, many of whom were driven into dependency as a result of poverty and hopelessness.
The pope delivered on those expectations, issuing a rare papal threat – this time, to drug pushers. He called the drug traffic “evil” and warned that, “God will demand an accounting of what they’ve done. Human dignity cannot be trampled upon like this.”
Yet even in this setting, the pope did not pull back from what has been the heart of his Brazilian message: If the spiritual fundamentals are missing, no program of attending to material and social needs – however worthy in itself, such as the fight against drugs – can offer an ultimate solution to human suffering. That solution, he insisted, stems from only one source, Jesus Christ.
In that sense, Benedict XVI’s Brazil trip has had a decidedly Christological emphasis.
His message on drugs resonates in today’s Latin America. Once considered a scourge of far-off, First World countries, drug addiction has reached epidemic proportions here over the last two decades. In Brazil, World Health Organization estimates are that the cost of health care related to drug abuse in the 1990s soared from $900 million to almost $3 billion, and the percentage of AIDS cases caused by intravenous drug use rose from 2.5 percent to 25 percent.
The pope’s comments on the drug scourge came at Fazenda Speranda, or “Farm of Hope,” a recovery center founded by a German priest named Fr. Hans Stempel. It draws on the spirituality of the Franciscans and the Focolare movement. To reach the spot, Benedict traveled by car roughly an hour into the Brazilian countryside from Aparacida, to a bucolic agricultural setting distinguished by rolling hills, a small river, and the occasional cow mooing at passer-bys.
The beauty of the setting, and the obvious enthusiasm of the crowd of roughly 3,000, most of them young people from the Fazenda Speranza, did not distract the pope from his Christological focus.
In a brief session with Poor Clare Sisters who work at the Farm of Hope, Benedict said their efforts offer “a clear witness to the Gospel of Christ amid a consumer society far removed from God,” and complimented them for attempting to “vanquish the prisons and break the chains of drugs that bring so much suffering to God’s beloved children.”
“We need to build up hope, weaving the fabric of a society that, by relaxing its grip on the threads of life, is losing the true sense of hope,” the pope said.
At the center itself, Benedict stressed that most important work done by the Farm of Hope is not physical and psychological recovery, valuable as that is, as but spiritual conversion – “returning to God, and to participation in the life of the church.”
“It’s not enough to cure the body,” Benedict said. “One has to adorn the soul with the most precious divine gifts acquired in baptism.”
Citing Jesus’ promise in the Gospel of John that whoever follows him “will have the light of life,” Benedict said that his mission is to “renew in people’s hearts this light that never goes out, so that it will shine in the most intimate corners of the souls of all those who seek true goodness and peace, which the world cannot give.”
“God does not compel, does not oppress individual liberty,” the pope said. “He only asks the openness of that sacred place of our conscience, though which all the noblest aspirations pass, but also the disordered feelings and passions that obscure the message of the Most High.”
Benedict told the Poor Clares that, “It is the risen Christ who heals the wounds and saves the sons and daughters of God, saves humanity from death, from sin and from slavery to passions.”
The bottom line for Benedict XVI in Brazil thus seems to be this: If you want to give life to the suffering peoples of Latin America, give them Christ. Downplaying the specifically “religious” dimension of the church’s message not only betrays its mission, he believes, but in the end it fails to produce the desired social results.
“It is God alone whose essence is love, and whose glory is man fully alive,” Benedict said.
Stempel, the founder of Fazenda Speranda, is from the Paderborn archdiocese in Germany. He arrived in Brazil in 1972, and later became a Franciscan. Serving as a parish priest in the rural community of Guarantinguetá, he decided to find a social center, initially for victims of alcohol and drug abuse, and later expanding to serve other vulnerable populations, including young unwed mothers and poor families.
Stempel was the architect of Benedict’s visit to Fazenda Speranza. In January 2006, he traveled to Rome to meet with Benedict, and delivered letters from 80 bishops asking that the pope add a stop here, and in December 2006 he received confirmation that the pope would come. Today, he was the host and emcee of the event with the pope.
Paderborn is one of the wealthiest dioceses in Germany, which funds many projects in Brazil, including the Fazenda Speranza. A large banner above the entrance the day of the pope’s arrival captured the German influence, wishing Benedict Herzlich Willkommen, Heilige Vater!, or “Hearty Greetings, Holy Father!”
Prior to the pope’s remarks, five young people told the pope their stories of recovery from drug addiction, anorexia, and other maladies. Several choked back tears as they spoke. Adding an ecumenical note, one of the youths was Lutheran and another Orthodox. After each spoke, the pope wrapped him or her in an embrace.
At the end of the roughly hour-long event, it was announced that Benedict XVI had donated $100,000 to the Fazenda Speranza. Added to the $200,000 that Benedict earlier donated for churches in the Amazon, that brings the total for papal generosity in Brazil to $300.000.