By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
São Paulo, Brazil
If Benedict XVI’s tough comments about excommunication for pro-choice Catholic politicians marked day one of his May 9-13 trip to Brazil, day two had a softer tone, focusing on pastoral moments and issues where church and state in Brazil are in broad agreement.
In their meeting in a government palace in São Paulo, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Pope Benedict steered clear of potential flash-points such as abortion and contraception, focusing instead on efforts to support families, education, and environmental concerns.
Benedict also held a brief meeting with 10 representatives of other Christian churches and other religions. The group included a rabbi, a Muslim leader, and eight heads of Christian churches.
Sources in the Brazilian church told NCR that the session almost didn’t happen. Vatican officials on three occasions had proposed taking it off the schedule, in an effort to avoid overtaxing the 80-year-old pope in light of a 13-hour plane ride the day before and a busy schedule once he hit the ground.
Local church officials, however, insisted that the meeting take place, arguing that Brazil has a unique commitment to ecumenism in Latin America, where Catholicism has long been a monopoly and relations with other Christians therefore not a top-tier pastoral priority. Brazil has a national-level body bringing together the various Christian bodies for formal dialogue, a relativel novelty in Latin America.
“It would have sent a false signal if the pope had not had the meeting,” one senior church official in Brazil said. “The work of dialogue is important in Brazil, and cancelling the meeting would have suggested that this dialogue is not approved by Rome.”
This official said it would have been even more satisfying had the group been able to accommodate more representatives of other religions, noting that Buddhism is a growing presence, due in large measure to high levels of Japanese immigration. With almost one million residents of Japanese descent, São Paulo is today considered the largest Japanese “colony” in the world.
After lunch with the officers of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, Benedict XVI also held a brief, but highly symbolic, meeting with the emeritus Archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Paulo Arns. During the battles over liberation theology in the 1970s and 1980s, Arns and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger often locked horns. When four new dioceses were split off from São Paulo in 1988, in a fashion that Arns himself had opposed, it was widely taken as a sign of Vatican disapproval.
In that light, Benedict’s choice to put an encounter with Arns on his schedule was seen as a gesture of reconciliation.
The day’s highlight came with Benedict’s encounter with Brazilian youth at the Municipal Stadium of Pacaembu. Before speaking, the pope sat through a lengthy, though decidely upbeat, program of popular Brazilian music and dance.
In his remarks, Benedict XVI avoided hard-hitting political rhetoric, focusing primarily on a call to Catholic young people to see themselves as “apostles to youth,” and to discover in Jesus Christ to roadmap to personal fulfillment.
Speaking in animated Portuguese, Benedict also urged the youth to confront the full range of challenges facing their society: the “environmental devastation of the Amazon,” various “threats to human dignity,” the defense of life “from its beginning to its natural decline,” care of the elderly, corruption, violence, and building a society “more just and based on solidarity, reconciled and peaceful.”
The pope exhorted the young people to be models of Christian virtue in their personal and professional lives, and to cherish the Sacrament of Matrimony. He also urged young Brazilians to be generous in responding to the call to the priesthood and religious life.
“My appeal today to you young people who have come to this meeting is, don’t waste your youth,” Benedict XVI said. “Don’t try to flee from it. Live it intensely. Consecrate it to the high ideals of the faith and of human solidarity.”
Benedict framed his remarks as a reflection on Matthew 19, and its account of the young man who asked Jesus what he had to do in order to obtain eternal life.
The crowd, estimated at roughly 35,000 on a chilly evening in São Paulo, interrupted Benedict with applause 28 times. One of the loudest cheers of the night came when Benedict mentioned the name of his predecessor, John Paul II. The youth broke out in chants of “Santo! Santo!,” signaling a desire to see John Paul formally declared a saint.
At one point, the crowd also chanted "No to abortion," reflecting the highly charged nature of political debate in Brazil in the wake of proposals to liberalize the country's abortion law. At present, abortion is legal only in cases of rape and threats to the health of the mother, although the number of "clandestine" abortions is thought to be somewhere between one and two million.