Brazil is filled with young people wrapped in the flags of their different countries -- but mostly South American. Pope Francis meets his flock at the World Youth Day event.
RIO DE JANEIRO - The steady and sticky rain, which seemed to come from the sea, turned to a joyful mist around 7:45 pm. That's when the beach was turned into an open-air Church.
“World Youth Day has now begun,” said the announcer, and thousands of flags from every country were raised. Volunteers carried an image of the Virgin Mary onto the stage. Behind them, another group carried a wooden cross, “the youth’s cross,” a gift passed down from Pope John Paul II. When the cross reached the top of the altar, more than five-stories high, it was raised further. And thus marked the beginning of Pope Francis’ mission in Latin America.
Official figures said that the crowd of pilgrims was more than 100,000, with Rio"s Atlántica Avenue shut down since 2 pm. A power failure had paralyzed the subway and the lines to reach the coasts with thousands of pilgrims went on for meters. People stood in line for almost two hours before the service re-started.
And yet, nothing seemed to be a problem for all those who came to be a part of an event that the Catholic Church has been organizing as a direct encounter between the Pope and the young faithful every two or three years since John Paul II launched the idea in 1984.
This time, the weeklong encounter, has a particular meaning. It coincides with the beginning of Pope Francis’ papacy as the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires attempts to give Catholicism a new impetus in his home region of Latin America.
Just another man
In the middle of the beach, amongst flags from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, United States, Lebanon, and many others, you could find Nahuel Zuleta. He is a 20-year old Philosophy student from Argentina who had arrived with 60 others from Buenos Aires.
“Francisco brings hope”, Nahuel explains. “Hope that one can change the world from a place of humility when he says that he wants a poor Church for the poor.”
From Lincoln, just outside of Buenos Aires, came a group of 50. They'd left their parish by bus on Thursday and had gotten to Rio three days later. You couldn’t tell how many miles they’d travelled by looking at Marcos Martínez. For him, arrival of the Argentine Pope at the Vatican “changed the relationship with the people more than anything. What is striking is that he is different from the Curia (hierarchy), that he is just another man. He's shown that this should be the norm.”
At that point, the giant screens reflected the Mass passages. The stage could be seen covered in red and blue. People walked holding hands to avoid getting lost. The bars by the coast were full. The day has passed without any major problems, with most left in wonder at the human tide that had greeted Pope Francis upon his arrival. Everyone at the beach seems to have seen him up close.
“The Pope wants to be near the people,” said Sao Paulo’s Archbishop, Cardinal Odilo Scherer. In fact, the Pope’s security and the people’s proximity to him had been part of the controversy of the day. However, it seemed far from the young pilgrims’ minds that night as they filled the beach.
Carlos Gutiérrez, another Argentinian, was wrapped in a flag to protect himself from the mist. “Francisco generated change, but he is only the leader of the Church," he said. "The Church is all of us, the young and the old, and we all have to contribute.”