Pope shows star quality as one million pilgrims gather in Rio
Rapturous reception from biggest crowd yet during Francis’s week-long visit to Brazil
Pope Francis waves to the crowd while riding in the Popemobile yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images
While organisers of the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day engaged in hand-wringing about the mounting chaos that has gripped this week’s event, pilgrims shrugged off the resulting inconveniences and gave Pope Francis another rapturous reception as he greeted up to a million of them on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach last night.
It was the biggest crowd yet of his week-long visit to Brazil and further evidence that Latin America’s first pontiff could possess the same star appeal as Pope John Paul II, at least in his home continent where 42 per cent of Catholics live.
The huge crowd cheered wildly as he made his way along the famous beachfront avenue in his pope-mobile to a huge stage. From there he joked that many people predicted the inclement weather would dampen the turnout. “But your faith is stronger than the wind and rain. Congratulations!” he said to huge cheers.
The rain had lifted by yesterday morning and pilgrims started to return to the beach up to eight hours before Pope Francis was due back for yesterday evening’s events, some taking advantage of the appearance of the sun to take a dip in the Atlantic while other groups formed circles to sing folk songs.
With authorities having declared a city holiday, thousands of groups of young people made their way all day through streets largely free of cars as residents leaned out apartment windows to cheer them on.
The event has attracted pilgrims from five continents, creating a rich cultural kaleidoscope with groups of Brazilian Indians in tribal dress arriving behind hymn-singing Chinese Catholics walking behind a group leader proudly flying the country’s communist red flag.
“It is a fantastic experience to be here. No one minds the problems. Everyone is getting along great and the welcome from Brazilians has been fantastic. You feel not just part of your parish or your own country but really a member of a global church,” said Lazaro Jamba, who made the journey to Rio with 800 others from Angola.
Among the most emotional at seeing the pope were the tens of thousands of Argentinians who have made the trip to see their fellow countryman on his first visit to his home continent since his election in March.
“There are no words to describe what I felt when I saw him and heard him speak,” said Diego Sausebo after he saw the pontiff yesterday. He joked about his country’s traditional rivalry with Brazil, which left many in the world’s most populous Catholic nation disappointed when one of their own cardinals was not chosen to replace Pope Benedict.
“It has been emotional to see this reception from Brazilians for Francisco. Today we are brothers, brothers in Christ,” said Sausebo.
As well as the music festival-like events of Copacabana beach, most of the more than 300,000 pilgrims who have officially registered to attend World Youth Day are also attending religious workshops, lectures and other events as church organisers use the gathering to reach out to the next generation of church workers.
For some of the Latin Americans attending, this will now mean a greater involvement in their country’s social and political affairs following the pope’s call on them to fight inequality and corruption.
“This pope knows our reality,” said Wilma de Perez of Paraguay. “The European popes were more distant and did not share much with us. But Francis speaks clearly about the poverty and corruption that we have to live with every day. He is a straight talker and I think our politicians will be afraid of him because of that.”
Pope Francis was due to hold a vigil service tonight before his final mass tomorrow, after which he will return to Rome.