SÃO PAULO – A joke made by Pope Francis concerning the Brazilians spurred outrage among some groups in the South American country.

On May 26, Brazilian Father João Paulo Victor asked the pontiff to send a blessing to the Brazilians after the general audience in the Vatican. A video shows how Pope Francis jokingly told the priest in Italian: “There’s no salvation for you. Too much cachaça [a Brazilian sugarcane spirit] and no praying.” The pope then blessed Victor and another person.

Victor’s cheerful reaction to the comment was not different from its initial effect on most Brazilians. But after the video began to circulate in social media, a wave of criticism began to grow, mostly from backers of conservative President Jair Bolsonaro.

In a public letter on the pro-Bolsonaro website Jornal da Cidade Online, lawyer Jorge Béja asked Pope Francis to “apologize to Brazil and to Brazilians” after his “tough, untrue, cruel, and hurtful words” uttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In a moment like that, of so much pain, you imply that not even the pope’s prayers will work because there’s no solution for us, Brazilians; we’re not worthy of the pope’s prayers, because we drink too much cachaça and pray too little,” he wrote.

Béja demanded an immediate apology from Pope Francis, stating that Brazilians are “a Christian people” and that Pope Francis was able to witness this fact during his visit to Brazil in the World Youth Day of 2013.

“Pope Francis, not even smiling, not even kidding, not even in a hilarious way, on no account and by no means you could say what you said,” the letter said.

The Facebook post of the letter on Jornal da Cidade Online’s page was shared more than 8,000 times and at least 18,000 people reacted to it.

In their comments, some connected Pope Francis to the former left-wing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. They met in February of 2020 in the Vatican. Others called Pope Francis a “communist,” a frequent accusation from Bolsonaro’s supporters against the ones they identify as political opponents.

Some people said they missed the “Polish Pope”, in a reference to Pope Saint John Paul II, seen by the Brazilian right-wing as a more conservative pontiff.

The current political polarization in the country has often engulfed the Catholic Church, including the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference.

In fact, most of the criticism seems to be not directed to Pope Francis’s joke itself, but to his own figure, which Bolsonaro’s supporters connect to progressive politics.

That’s the case of the traditionalist Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute (IPCO), which was formerly part of the Brazilian Society in Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property.

According to spokesperson Frederico Viotti, IPCO has known of people who have been “effectively offended by such an unfortunate comment of Pope Francis.”

“Many [sick] Catholics are not having access to the sacraments. Even when they ask for a priest, they cannot get one. They end up having to face a possible death without even getting religious assistance. Those people surely were waiting for other kind of commentary [from the pope],” he told Crux.

Viotti pointed to the Brazilian “devotion and praying spirit” and said that any foreigner who visits the country can identify it. That’s why, he added, abortion could never be legalized in Brazil, while it’s now legal in Argentina, the pope’s homeland.

“For Catholics like us, it causes strangeness and bewilderment the fact that Pope Francis frequently has rough words to address countries governed by conservatives which, to a certain extent, fight the society’s dechristianization, while only rarely he shows criticism towards leftist governments,” Viotti said.

Bishop Devair Araújo da Fonseca of Piracicaba, in São Paulo State, knows Pope Francis’s sense of humor. One of his office’s pictures show him on a visit to the Pope in 2015. Both of them are laughing. “I said something, and he instantly made a joke,” he remembered.

In da Fonseca’s opinion, most of the people who have been criticizing the pope for his comment are not “dissatisfied with what he said, they only use anything that happens as an excuse” to criticize him.

“Pope Francis can be naturally spirited. It’s a positive thing. I think we’re losing our sense of humor,” he told Crux.

Da Fonseca stressed that the pope didn’t fail to bless the Brazilian priest after the joke, so there have been two different moments in that brief encounter. “At first he was kidding, then he blessed the man,” the bishop said.

Another important element to remember, da Fonseca added, is that the Latin American sense of humor is not the same as the European or the North American.

“Brazilians are able to laugh even during funerals. Why wouldn’t they laugh now? If we can’t find a moment to relax in a time like that, things will get even heavier than now,” he said.