RIO DE JANEIRO -- Visiting with a group of recovering addicts in a Brazilian hospital Wednesday night, Pope Francis criticized the regional push to legalize drugs, saying society must instead tackle root causes of substance abuse such as the lack of education and justice.
Dressed in his simple white cassock and returning to this city from a daylong pilgrimage to one of Catholicism’s most revered shrines, Francis greeted doctors, nuns, nurses and patients, some waiting in wheelchairs in a driving rain.
“The scourge of drug-trafficking, that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires of society as a whole an act of courage,” the pope said, speaking in Portuguese. “A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America.”
Instead, he said, “it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future.”
Vatican officials said the pope met with 10 recovering addicts from the so-called City of God favela, or slum, made famous in the 2002 movie of the same name, about boys growing up in the violent neighborhood. On Thursday, Francis will venture into another favela, one so poor and dangerous that it is sometimes called the Gaza Strip.
The favelas are often known as hotbeds for drug trafficking and use. Addicts, including children, live in areas called cracolandias, or “crack lands,” large settlements where people essentially live in the streets. Such areas hurt for adequate healthcare, a key complaint of protesters who began to march through Brazil’s streets last month.
Francis chose to visit a hospital named, like him, after St. Francis of Assisi. His appearance ostensibly was to inaugurate a new wing dedicated to the treatment of drug and alcohol addicts, although nearly 2,000 such patients have already been cared for there during the last decade, according to Vatican officials.
He had a practical message, as well as a faith-based one. He said the church as well as doctors were available to help the needy.
“You have to want to stand up; this is the indispensable condition!” he said, his voice rising and the crowd applauding. “You will find an outstretched hand ready to help you. … Yours is a long and difficult journey.”
He told the addicts not to despair. “To all of you, I repeat: Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope!” he said, and then repeated it, to more applause. “And not only that, but I say to us all: Let us not rob others of hope, let us become bearers of hope!”
The pope looked tired as local church officials read long speeches at the hospital, his smile fading, his eyes drooping. This is former Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio’s first overseas trip as pope, and he needs to pull off a command performance to take momentum back to Rome ahead of any reform agenda for the scandal-plagued Vatican.
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