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Pope's slum visit: Impressive but little impact

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JENNY BARCHFIELD | July 26, 2013 06:53 PM EST | AP


RIO DE JANEIRO — The day before Pope Francis visited Marizete Marques' slum, the 62-year-old retired maid cleaned her humble home until her hands hurt.

She wanted it to sparkle for the pontiff, despite the fact that like many shantytown residents, she's not even Catholic.

Marques had already converted from the Catholicism she was born into to an evangelical congregation, following many residents in the Varginha slum, an impoverished sliver of land between two putrid waterways full of raw sewage. For the past decade she's been an active member of her local Assembly of God church, attending services, prayer groups and other functions six days a week.

While Brazil remains the world's largest Catholic country, the number of Catholics here dwindled in recent decades as legions of mostly poor people left the church for Pentecostal and evangelical congregations that are seen as offering concrete, hands-on help in improving their lives. In 1960, 90 percent of Brazilians were Catholics, according to census data. Today, Catholics account for just over 60 percent of the population in this country of 195 million.

Observers said that Varginha, which has four evangelical churches and two Catholic ones, was strategically chosen as the site of Thursday's papal visit in a bid to help staunch the tide of conversions.

But while local residents, Catholic and evangelical alike, said that Francis' visit was a big success, bringing out an enthusiastic crowd of thousands despite a cold rain, they also said it would take more than his quick trip to slow the growth of the Pentecostal congregations.

The pope no longer plays any role in Marques' spiritual life, but she said she was thrilled about the visit, which saw Francis visit a local Catholic church, make a speech on a rain-soaked soccer pitch and pay a courtesy call to a family home.

"I knew that there was no chance that my house would be the one the pope would visit, but I wanted it to be neat and clean as a sign of respect for him," Marques said, adding that she'd watched the pope's visit from her church's rooftop. "It was marvelous to have him here, a sheer joy for all of us residents, whatever our faith."

But asked whether seeing the pope in the flesh might nudge her back into the Catholic fold, she was categorical.

"No way. A true Christian would never do that," said Marques, a striking black woman with bone-white hair pulled back into a bun. "The pope struck me as a good man, a humble man, but that's no reason for me to abandon the church I've pledged my life to."

Anriete Matos, a 37-year-old manicurist who converted to an evangelical church about 20 years ago, said she thought the most lasting legacy of the visit would be more material than spiritual, referring to the handful of minor infrastructure projects local officials rushed to finish ahead of the pope's arrival.

"This community has been completely abandoned by City Hall for a very long time," said Matos, as she sat atop a 2-foot-high slab of concrete in front of her door that helps keep water out of her house during frequent floods. "So it was great that they did a few things, like patching up most of the holes in the asphalt, putting in a bit of sidewalk and trimming the trees for the pope, even if we suspect it was just a one-time thing."

As she spoke, a group of bare-chested, bare-footed boys chased after a lame horse with protruding ribs down the street as motorcycles buzzed by. A stray dog hustled after a rat near a crumbling building that Matos said had once served as a community center before it was abandoned and then occupied by crack addicts. A young man with links to the Red Command drug gang walked up and down the street, eyeing outsiders intensely. The heavily armed Red Command had ruled Varginha for decades and was pushed out in January under the government's slum "pacification" program.

"I saw people who I know are evangelicals, people from my own church out there waiting for the pope and screaming and crying when the pope came by. I must say I was a bit surprised," said Matos, who has struggled to provide for her two children since the sudden death of her husband two years ago. "But for however charismatic the pope is, I don't think you're going to see a lot of people going back to the fold. Anyone who does end up leaving the evangelical churches was probably having doubts and would probably have left anyway."

A self-defined "lapsed evangelical," Edna Idarrah Correa said she would be shocked to learn that even a single member of any of Varginha's evangelical congregations left because of the pope.

"I know from experience, having broken with the church, just how hard it is to leave," said the 25-year-old makeup artist, who shares her narrow cement-block home with her non-practicing Catholic husband. "At the end of the day, the fact that you find the pope nice is just not going to be enough motivation for anyone to go through the work of leaving the church."

The visit might not even have sufficed to get Catholics back to Mass regularly.

Retired construction worker Cinesio Francisco said that though it was exciting to see the pope in person, he wasn't planning on going to church for anything more than the odd family baptism, first communion or wedding.

"Seeing the pope is something I'll always remember," said the 63-year-old, pausing to sell a homemade kite to boys in flip-flops and shorts. "But that's really about it."