By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service
RIO DE JANEIRO (CNS) — Carlos Rojas is the keeper of 240 keys at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Vidigal, a hillside slum in south Rio de Janeiro. He opens the church each morning, guards, cleans and closes it each night.
Before the church was built eight years ago, priests celebrated Mass in the street. Wanting their own space, Catholics in the community walked the hillside, going door-to-door, collecting signatures and eventually winning enough support to build their own sanctuary.
Brazil has more Catholics than any country in the world. In 1980 Blessed John Paul II visited the favela, or slum, and left his gold cross-shaped ring there, urging the community to sell it and use the money to better living conditions. Rojas was on the committee that helped to coordinate the visit.
In July, another pope will come to Brazil for World Youth Day. While Rojas said he quietly hoped for another papal visit, he said another favela deserves the chance to experience what Vidigal did in 1980. Since Blessed John Paul’s visit to Vidigal, Rojas said the Catholic Church has played a pivotal role in helping the once-dangerous and drug-ridden neighborhood improve.
“The only fight, the only one that the church will serve, is the noble one for truth and justice, the one for the real good, the one where the church is at one with each man,” Blessed John Paul told the people of Vidigal.
In the years that followed the papal visit, Blessed John Paul’s words rang true. His visit and the media attention it generated turned the government’s eyes to the slum. Rojas says the government began to repair streets and put in streetlights.
But for decades, Vidigal has struggled with more than poverty. Its ocean view and proximity to the most exclusive areas of Rio make it coveted real estate. Residents have been threatened by investors and in some cases evicted from their homes. Rojas said the Catholic Church has defended the residents’ rights and helped to protect their land and homes.
Our Lady of Consolation Church built an addition five years ago because it was out of space. Today the neighborhood has sewer, running water and a street named after Blessed John Paul. Hotels have sprung up and real estate prospectors continue to eye the favela, where property values are rising. The neighborhood never sold the gold ring left by the pope: It sits on display in a museum at the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Rojas said he wonders what impact Pope Francis and 2 million young Catholics will have on Rio. Throughout Rio, he said, youth are often seen as troublemakers and thieves, and events like World Youth Day are important in showing that they are not lost, but are the future.
In mid-April on the other side of town, Msgr. Joel Portela, executive secretary of the Local Organizing Committee for World Youth Day, celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Bonsucesso de Inhauma to celebrate the 100-day countdown to the event. Volunteers from dozens of countries have already arrived in Rio to prepare for the pilgrimage. At the Mass, their voices joined in song with residents of the community of Mandela.
Mandela and Vidigal were both recently targeted by police in an effort to clean up the city and rid the favelas of gangs and drug traffickers. World Youth Day in July will be the first of many major events the city will host, followed by the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.
Msgr. Portela said while Mandela is a community that has suffered a lot, like Vidigal, it shows signs of life, strength and hope. This is the message he said World Youth Day will send — that the Catholic Church is everywhere and includes everyone.
“Why Mandela? I like to invert the question, why not Mandela?” Msgr. Portela said after celebrating the Mass.
During the homily he reiterated that World Youth Day is for all of Rio de Janeiro. While some of the main events will be hosted in better-known areas of the city, such as on Copacabana beach and at the Christ the Redeemer statue, the archdiocese and the World Youth Day Local Organizing Committee have made sure to offer events citywide.
That’s the attitude that Rojas said he hoped the new pope would bring to Rio and one he says the Catholic Church should follow worldwide.
“Pope Francis says the church has to go where the people are,” Rojas said. “People don’t go to the church, the church must go to them.”