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from issue no. 05 - 2007

THE POPE’S JOURNEY. The meeting between Benedict XVI and Lula

Seen from close-up

The Brazilian President’s acknowledgement of the Church, Ratzinger’s respect for the secularity of the State. The mutual esteem and appreciation. The details of a dialogue anything other than formal

by Stefania Falasca

The meeting between Benedict XVI and the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Palácio dos Bandeirantes in São Paulo, 10 May 2007

The meeting between Benedict XVI and the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Palácio dos Bandeirantes in São Paulo, 10 May 2007

Thirty minutes of private talks. More than planned. And more than the dictates of protocol would require of a formal courtesy visit. «The Pope asks Lula for privileges for the Catholic Church», «O Presidente diz a Bento 16 que o Estado Brazilleiro é laico», but the President replies that the Brazilian State is secular. So in the wake of the well-known polemics the Brazilian press made its opening comments on the much awaited tête-à-tête between Benedict XVI and Lula, on the day after their 10 May meeting in São Paulo.
But let’s open the doors of that private discussion and listen to it live: «“Holy Father, I owe a lot of what I am to the Catholic Church, personally it has given me a lot...” , the President then said, and continued: “During much of my life I have always worked directly and indirectly with the Church associations to construct a more equitable Brazil”. And also from the way in which the President introduced the concrete issues, from the way in which he spoke to him, the Pope was visibly very impressed. I was really struck by the interest, by the genuine attention and reponsiveness shown by the Holy Father in the meeting with the President». With these words and much calm clarity, Vera Machado Barrouin, Ambassador of Brazil to the Holy See, takes us inside and into the immediacy of that discussion, telling 30Days, as an eyewitness, of the meeting behind closed doors between Pope Raztinger and the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, there in the Palácio dos Bandeirantes. And with the same clarity she also refutes what the press wrote: «The Pope speaking first began by saying that he respected the secular nature of the Brazilian State: “I deeply respect the secularity of the State”, he said. The Pope said it, not the President». And her words do not diverge one jot from what Gilberto Carvalho, chef do gabinete of the Presidency of the Republic, Lula’s right-hand man, also asserts. Speaking to us on the phone after his return from Brasilia with the Head of State, Gilberto Carvalho told us: «The President spoke at length with us on board the airplane about the meeting he had with the Pope. He was happy, the meeting pleased him greatly, he defined it as friendly, very affectionate and also very concrete. He said that the Pope began by thanking him sincerely for the welcome... and everything proceeded with great mutual respect. What they wrote is not true, it was the Pope who first of all expressed his respect for the State». And Lula? «He thanked him».
News is news and certainly these words put a different slant on the meaning and the prospects opened by this meeting. Including the reference, implicit in the press headlines, to the alleged niet of the Brasilia government to the proposal, advanced by the Holy See, of an agreement with the Brazilian State. News, this, divulged on the very eve of the discussion itself. But let’s reconsider again in close up, the statements by Machado and Carvalho, in the light of the photos taken on the exit from the private conversation in the government headquarters of the State of São Paulo. They’re the images we’ve all seen: Lula beckoning his relatives and collaborators to pay homage to the Pope and grazing Benedict XVI’s shoulder in a friendly way; the Pope looking serene and calm, not at all at a loss in the middle of all that coming and going – hardly in line with protocol – of children, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. And we see him also lingering with those very lively little children, stooping at a certain point to pick up the small medal, just given as a gift, that had fallen from the hands of one of them. A gesture that in its spontaneous simplicity went right to the heart of the Brazilians. In short, even the most malicious eye would have been unable to find anything that could be branded as showbiz in that small picture of human familiarity, sheltered from the winds of controversy. Not even the presence, outside of Vatican protocol, of the primeira dama dona Marisa Letícia, at her husband’s side in the confidential conversation. So much so that Father Federico Lombardi, Director of the Vatican Press Office, questioned there and then about the unprecedented fact, said: «I too was struck, perhaps it’s a sign of the importance of the family, in any case laudable and meaningful». But here the fact stirred no surprise. All know that no reason in the world would have prevented dona Marisa, married to Lula for more than thirty years, Catholic and an Italian citizen as well, being of Venetian origins, from being present during the Pope’s visit. And the previous day she was alongside when Lula presented himself at the foot of the stairs to welcome Benedict XVI from the plane on his arrival. Not an easy coming. Above all for Lula, who found himself making the first steps towards Pope Ratzinger on an uneven home playingfield strewn with banana skins, ready to trip him at the first false step. First among them, abortion. Just last March, in fact, the Commission on the Constitution and Justice had given the okay to a bill proposing a referendum for the liberalization of abortion, possible today in Brazil only in cases of rape and danger to the health of the mother. It was also the Minister of Health José Gomez Temporão who put up the pressure to the maximum by not hesitating, just on the arrival of His Holiness, to polemicize directly with the Pope on the issue. Lula, for his part, has always declared himself personally against the practice of abortion and days before emphasized that Brazilian legislation already defines the cases in which it is possible. «I am against abortion», he said, «but as Head of State I cannot prevent Congress from debating it». And along with abortion, there were also discussions about divorce, a bill for lowering the age of criminal liability to 16, strongly opposed by the Bishops’ Conference, together with other burning issues in social life, such as the use of the condom and research on stem cells, which certainly did not forecast fair weather. And it was indeed from a cold sky livid with clouds that the papal flight landed. Temperatures then began to rise in the covered-in area of the Guarulhos air force base when Pope Benedict began to speak. And those of Lula in welcome echoed his: «doubly honored», he said, «as Christian and as President». Words that aimed to focus immediately on the «long and profitable path of mutual cooperation between the Brazilian State and the Church, that have led», he said, «to innumerable programs for human betterment, improving the life and dignity of our people». And he concluded thus: «Holy Father, be assured that we share the just concern to safeguard and strengthen family life, that is the premise for genuine community and social life. Our commitment to combating and defeating the causes of its disintegration will be ever greater».
A group of Brazilian young people greeting the Pope in the Campo di Marte in São Paulo at the canonization of Blessed frei Antônio de Sant'Anna Galvão, 11 May 2007

A group of Brazilian young people greeting the Pope in the Campo di Marte in São Paulo at the canonization of Blessed frei Antônio de Sant'Anna Galvão, 11 May 2007

Unequivocal words that immediately enabled him to to run free of the contrary winds and point the rudder directly at the constructive, at the practical and fruitful landfall of collaboration. For that matter Lula had already expressed the desire in the previous days to speak with the Pope about this: «Since I assumed the presidency we have made public policies that are the result of what I have learned from the Church. The Church has a relation of solidarity, a deep commitment to the Brazilian people. We have a very good relationship, of respect: we for the autonomy of the Church and the Church for the autonomy of the State. And this respect is and has been a guarantee of wellbeing for all». They are words that if on the one hand clearly state a past shaped by closeness, on the other constitute a preamble to the meeting with Benedict XVI. In a word, not a step backwards for Lula. If anything a step ahead. Just there, further ahead, where he found himself with Pope Ratzinger.
But let’s see how the private discussion unfolded. Here it is in sequence. Just as Ambassador Vera Machado recounts it.

The tête-à-tête discussion
«Before going into the substantial aspects of the discussion, the Pope wanted to express his respect for the secularity of the State. The President thanked him and expressed on the part of the government complete willingness to enter into good relations with the Holy See. Pope Benedict XVI then also spoke of the hope of reaching an agreement. “I hope it can be reached during my pontificate”, he said, and Lula answered that not only did he hope that that could happen during his pontificate but that it could be concluded during his presidency and for this he was disposed to give it all his support.
Immediately afterwards, the conversation moved on to the issue of the family and the problems of young people in Brazil. Lula said to the Pope that he totally shared, “as man and president”, the worry with regard to the disintegration of the bonds and structure of the family. And he added that he was convinced that the way to building a more just society passed necessarily through the rescue of the family and its ethical and educational role. In this sense “the rescue of young people is bound to the rescue of the family”. In this context he spoke to the Pope about the program Bolsa Familia, put into effect by his government as a primary and effective instrument for aid to families, beginning with the poorest. The families benefiting (11 million) are required to produce the education certificate of their children in order to continue to benefit from the program: Lula explained how this also confirmed the effectiveness of the plan in reducing truancy, having brought about the return to school of 800,000 youngsters. He then spoke about the commitment enabling marginalized young people to have a possibility in life. And he stated that in this he could count on the collaboration of the Church and religion also: “We wish to preserve and consolidate the secular State but also to count on religion in order to improve social action and to widen the horizon of collective dignity”. The Pope expressed his solidarity and spoke about the priority that the Catholic Church gives to the family, just as to women’s rights and the education of children. He emphasized how the family is the primary place of education, which must be rounded out and assisted by the school, that must provide professional training, but also have room for the spiritual and moral dimension. “We wish to contribute to this”, he said.
The conversation then continued on Lula’s part about the promotion of family farming. The President spoke about the programs on bio-combustibles and their importance not only for the promotion of family farming, for the creation of jobs and for safeguarding the atmosphere, but also because they represent a new world-wide economic method for the development of poor countries. In this perspective he spoke also about Africa. He said that Brazil is greatly interested in relations with Africa, within South-South cooperation, and added that he sees in the production of ethanol an important form of support for the economies of the African countries and a new way to speed their development. He explained, even in detail, these aspects to the Pope and then asked the Church to support the African countries that wish to adopt the program.
Benedict XVI presiding at the Holy Mass of inauguration of the fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, on the parvis of the shrine of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida, 13 May 2007

Benedict XVI presiding at the Holy Mass of inauguration of the fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, on the parvis of the shrine of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida, 13 May 2007

The Pope, listening with interest, answered the President that even if he didn’t understand anything about ethanol and bio-combustibles, he considered this concern for Africa, “which is also”, he said, “a worry of the Church”, with sympathy and participation. And he stated: “The African bishops are encouraged to act so that the Church continue to be a reference point in that regional context, so that it be a guarantee for the maintenance of peace and traditional religious coexistence”. “We want to nullify the potential for conflict before it explodes”, he said.
The conversation then moved on to Latin America. Lula spoke about the commitment of his country to the integration of South America, the need for religious integration, and of the weight that the Catholic Church has in this context. He said therefore that the visit of the Pope for the inauguration of the General Assembly of the CELAM “is a very important step, a blessing of God for Brazil and for the entire continent”. Benedict XVI showed that he was aware of and valued the efforts of the President in the national and international sphere and thanked him for his words.
Then he repeated that his visit was in the context of the CELAM, in continuity with the great continental assemblies begun in Rio de Janeiro and continued in Medellín, Puebla and Santo Domingo. He clarified that “The principal mission of the Church is religious. In it the moral dimension is included, therefore it cannot withdraw from social responsibility, as basis of love for one’s neighbor”. The Pope then wanted know about the situation of the Indios. In reply the President spoke about the plans for integration underway in Indio lands, such as the programs for education and a health service for those peoples, in particular of the quilombolas communities, indigenous rural groups in northeastern Brazil. And, agreeing with the president, the Pope said: “They must preserve their culture, but without being excluded from the community, otherwise they become museum pieces, archaeological finds”.
Finally Lula made reference to his own personal appreciation for the Church declaring himself “to believe and hold that the faith can motivate the construction of a country and a more just and solid world”. He also referred to his own personal gratitude for dom Cláudio Hummes, who was close to him in the difficult times of the dictatorship, who offered protection and help to his family, his wife and children, when he was in jail. “I have need now of the spiritual and human qualities of that priest as Head of the Congregation for the Clergy”, Benedict XVI said to him in conclusion».

After the meeting
Those are the topics dealt with in a long and frank one-to-one discussion. Now, for journalistic thoroughness, some actions and declarations in the immediate aftermath of this meeting need to be documented. On 14 May, speaking on the radio in his usual weekly program Café com o presidente, Lula, without mincing words, rejected the simplifications of those who consider and define Pope Ratzinger a conservative Pope: «Many people said and wrote, even before the visit, that the Pope is extremely conservative, when in truth, what I myself witnessed here is that the Pope has an attitude of great sharing in social issues and a concern to know our problems. His behavior was very dignified and beneficial for us». The following day, not even twenty-four hours from the end of the visit to Brazil, he entered the political arena on the most controversial issue. During a public meeting, Lula rebutted his Minister of Health, José Gomez Temporão, denying that his government will send to Congress the bill for the depenalization of abortion: «The government will not send any bill on abortion», he asserted. «In their own good time the parliamentarians will discuss and confront each other about what must be done in this area of interest to public health». On 24 May, in the account of his apostolic journey to Brazil, Benedict XVI wrote: «Brazil is also a nation that can offer to the world a new model for development».
«The Church does not engage in politics», the Pope said. Lula understood at once.

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