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The joy of faith and redemption from sorrow

· Pope Francis' day: from Aparecida to Rio de Janeiro ·

“Hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy”: these “three simple attitudes”, pointed out in particular to the young, “lights of hope” for the Church and for society, express the whole vision of faith of Pope Francis who went on pilgrimage to Aparecida on Wednesday morning, 24 July. He had been there six years ago, as a cardinal, to take part in the work of CELAM's Fifth General Conference at which his predecessor Benedict XVI had presided. He returned on 24 July to consecrate his pontificate to Our Lady and to invoke her protection for the success of the WYD and for the life of the entire Latin American people.

Moreover he intends to return shortly to Brazil's national Marian Shrine which is the largest  in Latin America and only slightly smaller than St Peter's.  He said so himself at the end of the Mass, when he went outside to bless all those who had followed the rite on the giant screens, and asked the faithful to pray that he might also be there in 2017 for the celebration of the third centenary of the finding of the venerated black statue.

After John Paul II (July 1980) and Benedict XVI (May 2007), Francis is the third pope to visit Aparecida, one of the most frequently visited and best loved Marian shrines; more than 22 million pilgrims came here in the previous year alone.

He made the 200 km journey from Rio to Aparecida by plane and helicopter. He was greeted  by the enthusiasm of more than 200,000 of the faithful, in spite of the constant downpour and the cold.

After the popemobile had been held up by the crowds which made him at least half an hour late for the scheduled events, the Holy Father was greeted by Redemptorist Fr Domingos Sávio, rector of the marvellous basilica. In the Hall of the Twelve Apostles, where it is kept, he prayed before the venerable image, fished out in pieces by three fishermen from the River Paraibas — the body was found first, then the head. From that time she has been Protectress of the oppressed, first of the black slaves and then of all victims of injustice. In 1930 she was proclaimed Patronness of Brazil.

At the end of his private prayers, the Bishop of Rome celebrated his first public Mass in Brazil in the Basilica of Aparecida — with the Readings of the Patronal Feast of 12 October — and read his first homily on this visit in Portuguese. The clerics of his entourage and the bishops of the region, in white vestments, concelebrated with him. At the end of Mass the Pope imparted the blessing clasping the wooden reproduction of the black Virgin, given to him on behalf of the shrine's devotees by the Cardinal Archbishop Damasceno Assis. He then repeated his act of blessing from the loggia of the shrine, after exchanging a few playful words with the faithful who had been waiting for him outside.

Pope Francis then went for lunch to the close by Bom Jesús Seminary, known as “the Colegião”, where he was awaited by the bishops of the Province, together with the candidates for priestly ordination from various parts of the country. In the Renaissance-style building which in 1980 hosted John Paul II for a few hours, Pope Francis blessed an image of St Antonio de Santana Galvão, which will be set up in the shrine dedicated to him in Guaratinguetá. The Brazilian friar was canonized by Pope Benedict xvi in São Paulo in 2007.

After flying back to Rio de Janeiro in the afternoon, Pope Francis ended his busy day with a visit to St Francis of Assisi Hospital. As he flew over the Cariocan metropolis he could see the glaring contradiction between the steel and glass skyscrapers, commercial centres with neon lighting and golf courses, and the hills heaped with the sprawling huts of the favelas. Demonstrations of joy, as on the day of the Pope's arrival, were repeated in spite of the bad weather, the roads thronged with festive people.

In this health-care structure in the Tijuca district the Pope inaugurated a specialized ward for the treatment of drug addiction and alcoholism. The man who conceived of it, Francisco Bellotti, a Franciscan, founded together with a handful of volunteers a centre providing the latest treatment for “the lepers of the 21st century”: the ghosts of crack, the men and women who smoke the residue of the manufacture of cocaine. There are more than two million of them in the country, six thousand of whom live in the favelas of Rio, which not by chance are also called “crackolandias”: places in which the poor drown their daily suffering in this chemical poison that annihilates, rather like what happens in the vilas miserias of Buenos Aires, where the use of paco obtained from the chemical byproduct of cocaine paste is widespread.

Partly thanks to the contribution of the Italian Episcopal Conference, the centre can now guarantee another 40 beds, as well as the 500 that the hospital already has. It also offers a full project for rehabilitation, in addition to emergency first aid treatment. In fact after their hospital stay the sick embark on a course of rehabilitation in the specialized centres of the archdiocese. This initiative is intended as a tangible sign of social commitment among the youth of the local Church for the honour of having hosted the world gathering of the new generations.

The ceremony took place under the banner of Franciscan simplicity: after praying in the hospital chapel, the Holy Father offered as a gift ceramic chalices and ampollas with hand-painted decorations. The following people then spoke,  prior to the discourse of the Holy Father,  in the courtyard and with singing and many bursts of applause:  Archbishop Tempesta, Fr Manuel de Oliveira Manangã, the coordinator of the project and vicar of the pastoral care of charity in the Cariocan Archdiocese, two patients and Fra Francisco Belotti, director of the centre. Particularly significant were the words of the two young people who with their testimony of suffering and hope moved the heart of the Pope and of all those present. Among the latter were also some former drug addicts who had made the chairs used for the occasion. The Pope, for his part, warned against the merchants of death who spread the scourge of drug-trafficking and reasserted his opposition to the liberalization of drugs that is being debated in various parts of Latin America.

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Nov. 15, 2018

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