RIO DE JANEIRO - This modern pilgrimage through the heart of South America began last Friday at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires.
The church, where the current Pope used to preside, was jam-packed with 500 young people from a dozen different parishes, their parents, priests and friends, as Jorge Bergoglio’s successor Archbishop Mario Aurelio Poli offered them his blessing.
“Be responsible during the journey, share your food with those who have none, take care of your companions who fall behind, and return with your hearts full of happiness to share with those who stayed behind,” Poli preached.
Wise words indeed: the long journey ahead to take part in this week's World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil is not meant to be easy, but the challenges will be overcome with remarkable selflessness already evident in these first days. Here at La Stampa we were lucky enough to be travelling in the first of the seven coaches, which is carrying a replica of Our Lady of Luján, the patron saint of Argentina -- the native land of Pope Francis, the first South American pontiff in history.
“This journey,” explains the organiser, Mario Miceli, “has a special flavor to it because many of these young people have met Jorge Bergoglio in person.” For them, Jorge and Francis are one and the same; the gestures and actions of the new pontiff simply represent a continuation of what Bergoglio spent many years doing and preaching in Buenos Aires.
On our coach, there is Father Mario, who is accompanying 37 young people from his parish, Santa Lucia de Barracas. However, he wanted to make sure that the first of the seven coaches also included teenagers from the Bajo Flores district – one of the capital's most dangerous neighborhoods, which Bergoglio loved to visit and talk about in his sermons.
The first night slips by quickly, as we follow the hazy but enchanting route through the jungle in the Misiones province, and glimpse the fantastic Iguazu waterfalls. The first delay comes when we reach the border with Brazil: every single document is checked, including the parental authorizations for the pilgrims who are under 18. Bureaucracy does not help. The last coach is stopped because it has a broken windscreen wiper. It will take two hours to get it changed.
Monsignor Poli’s words resonate and the other six coaches pull over to wait. Slowly but surely, more delays accumulate, bit by bit, and the trip which should have lasted two days will take 55 hours in total. No one complains.
European v. Latin American youth
Whenever there is a break, guitars appear. During the final pit-stop, just two hours from Sao Paulo, Sunday mass is held on the grass outside a service station.
“Today will be a very special day,” explains Andres Chahin, a psychology student, “because as Latin Americans, we express our emotions more strongly than other countries. It will be a great celebration because we can all identify with Pope Francis.”
This trip is both geographic and political. Pope Francis’s flight has transported him from a Europe that is pushing ever more young people into the limbo of unemployment, to a South America that sees them instead as the protagonists of the fight for people's power. You can gauge the role of youths here both in the central part they played in the recent economic protests in Brazil, as well as their stance on the front line of social and religious initiatives.
“In order to live our faith,” says Eugenia, “we must be ready to serve Jesus, and there is no better way to do so than to help our neighbors. Bergoglio always said so, full churches and masses bursting at the seams aren’t enough, we have to go out into the street and work with others.”
We arrive in Rio de Janeiro just as dawn is breaking. The bus station is overrun with young Argentinians, Brazilians, Chileans, Colombians. Many other foreigners will be arriving by plane and convoys of cars and minibuses. The organizers are making huge efforts to register everyone, but the statistics don’t matter -- it's the atmosphere that counts.
Upon his arrival, the Pope waded into a sea of young people waiting to greet him. And it is exactly this, a burst of new faith, so long sought after by the Church, that will be the central focus of this great summit in Rio.