By Eric Marrapodi
RIO DE JANEIRO (CNN) — Pope Francis visited one of Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods Thursday, saying that no society pushing the poor to the margins can succeed.
“I say: You are not alone; the church is with you, the pope is with you,” Francis told residents of the notorious Varginha favela, or slum.
“I carry each of you in my heart and I make my own the intentions that you carry deep within you: thanksgiving for joys, pleas for help in times of difficulty, a desire for consolation in times of grief and suffering.”
Francis, whose concern for the poor has earned him the nickname the “slum pope” in Latin America, is in Brazil through Sunday for World Youth Day, a weeklong Catholic event.
Huge crowds have gathered wherever Francis goes, providing an early indicator of the new pope’s immense popularity during his first overseas trip as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
On Wednesday, Francis visited a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and what he called “a shrine to suffering,” a Rio hospital that treats drug addicts.
Francis traveled to Varginha on Thursday to deliver a speech on poverty, hope and social justice, steady themes thus far in his young papacy.
“Shortly after his election to the papacy, Pope Francis called for a `church for the poor,’ ” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian priest who assists the Vatican communications department. “His visit today … offers us a unique opportunity to see the Bishop of Rome giving flesh and blood to those words.”
The pope was driven to the favela in the open-air “pope mobile,” occasionally reaching out to touch the crowds. Women along the route thrust infants over the barricades for the pope to bless.
Volunteers linked arms to hold the crowd back in spots without barricades. Hundreds of military and police lined the route, and more than a dozen motorcycle officers followed.
Brazilian officials have voiced concern about the pope’s security, upgrading it Wednesday to “high risk” after crowds swarmed a car carrying the pope shortly after his arrival two days earlier.
Read more: Security raised to`high risk’ for pope in Brazil
Varginha is now deemed “occupied” by the Brazilian government after police took over the community last year, forcing out drug gangs who had controlled it for decades. Despite the heavy police presence, locals say the area remains dangerous after dark.
In Varginha, Francis stopped at a small, stone Catholic chapel called San Girolamo Emiliani, where he said a short silent prayer, blessed a new altar and presented the community with a new chalice.
Outside a group of children presented the pontiff with a soccer scarf from his favorite Argentine club.
From the chapel he walked in the rain into a house and then to a soccer stadium, weaving from one side of the road to the other and greeting onlookers with a broad smile splashed across his face.
At the soccer stadium, a crowd of 3,000 gathered, including Marilene da Luz, a retired cashier who jumped up and down to the music playing.
“He’s such a humble man, it makes sense that he comes to the favelas; this is where the humble people are,” da Luz said.
Speaking in Portuguese, the pope told the rain-soaked capacity crowd he wanted to visit every house in Brazil and have a small coffee with people. But “no cachaca,” he joked, referring to the strong Brazilian liquor popular with the poor.
Francis addressed the crowd in plain language, telling them that even the poor have much to offer.
“You can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity, a word that is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable,” the pope said.
Francis also obliquely addressed the protests against government spending and corruption that have broken out across Brazil in recent months.
“To you and to all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished,” the pope said.
Read more: Pope Francis embarks on historic trip to Brazil, where protesters await
“No amount of ‘peace-building’ will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself.” he said.
“The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!”
The pope stressed that a nation must be built on the fundamentals of life, family, education, health and security.
“Let us always remember this: Only when we are able to share, do we become truly rich,” he told the large crowd, including slum residents, gathered in the soccer stadium. “Everything that is shared is multiplied!”
Even in Varginha, a neighborhood where poverty, drugs and violence had run rampant, hope must continue, he said.
“Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good; do not grow accustomed to evil but defeat it.”
Later Thursday, the pope was to lead a religious service on Copacabana Beach, with upward of 1 million Catholics expected to attend.
CNN’s Barbara Arvanitidis, Hada Messia and Daniel Burke contributed to this report.
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