Pope Francis wrapped up a historic trip to his home continent yesterday with a Mass on Copacabana beach that drew a reported 3 million people, who cheered the first Latin American pope in a remarkable response to his message that the Catholic Church must shake itself up and get out into the streets to find the faithful.
Nearly the entire 4 kilometre crescent of Copacabana’s broad beach overflowed with people, some of them taking an early morning dip in the Atlantic and others tossing T-shirts, flags and soccer jerseys into the pontiff’s open-sided car as he drove by. Francis worked the crowd, kissing babies, taking a sip of mate tea handed up to him and catching gifts on the fly. Even the normally stern-faced Vatican bodyguards let smiles slip as they jogged alongside his car, caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowd.
Many of the crowd had spent the night on the beach, an all-night slumber party to end World Youth Day that had a festive Latin air, with pilgrims wrapped in flags and sleeping bags to ward off the cold. They danced, prayed and sang — and stood in long lines in front of the armadas of portable bathrooms on the beach.
“We were dying of cold but it was worth it,” said Lucrecia Grillera, an 18-year-old from Cordoba, Argentina, where Francis lived for a time before becoming pope. “It was a tiring day, but it was a great experience.”
The Vatican said more than 3 million people were on hand for the Mass, based on information from World Youth Day organisers and local authorities.
That was far higher than the 1 million at the World Youth Day vigil in Madrid in 2011 or the 650,000 at Toronto’s 2002 vigil.
Many of those at the vigil had tears in their eyes as they listened to Francis’ call for them to not be “part-time Christians” and to build up their church like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was called to do.
“Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup!” Francis said, drawing cheers in this soccer-mad nation.
After yesterday’s Mass, Francis was meeting with the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as holding a thank-you audience with some of the 60,000 volunteers who organised the festival. He left for Rome last night.
“It was such an excellent week, everybody was in such good spirit, you could just feel a sense of peace,” said Denise da Silva, a Rio de Janeiro Catholic who was sitting alone on the beach Sunday morning, a Brazilian flag painted on her face. “I have never seen something here in Rio so marvellous as what we have just lived.”
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