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Pope Francis Takes to the Streets of Copacabana

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AP
AP

Chanting "Papa Francisco" to the rhythm of bossa nova music, pilgrims from all over the world packed the glitzy Copacabana beachfront in the rain and unusually cold Rio weather Thursday night, to welcome history's first Latin American pope for World Youth Day.

Donning ponchos over matching t-shirts and backpacks for the occasion that were also green, blue and yellow -- representing the colors of Brazil -- crowds moved in swarms as they waved their country flags in an event that is held every three years.

"I've always heard that Cariocas (people from Rio) did not like the cold or the rain, but you are showing your faith is stronger," the 76-year-old Argentine pope joked at the start of the ceremony.

Upwards of a million people flocked the sands at the world's largest Roman Catholic country for an open beach mass with umbrellas and small tokens, such as coins and bandanas from their home countries, to exchange with other young groups.

Hours earlier, people were already shoulder to shoulder on Avenida Atlântica, a main street overlooking the famed Copacabana, in anticipation for Francis' warm welcome back to Latin America.

As viewing parties took place on apartment rooftops aligning the street and adorned with Brazilian flags, groups shadowed the windows below them eagerly waiting for the glimpse of Francis in his popemobile.

In his first international trip, Francis' visit also comes at a critical juncture for Brazil. Gripped last month by its biggest show in demonstrations in over twenty years, Brazilians took to the streets across 100 cities to protest against government corruption and lavish spending.

Thursday night was also met with small protests outside the residence of the Rio state governor in nearby Leblon which later led into Copacabana.

Throughout his week-long visit, Francis has touted the trappings of social inequality. Nicknamed "slum pope" for his time spent in impoverished areas, Francis spent earlier Thursday at Varginha favela in northern Rio de Janeiro. An area hit with so much violence that at one time, it was once known as the Gaza Strip.

As Francis later made his way to Copacabana, surrounding streets were closed off to traffic and shielded by the flashing lights of police as droves of security and medics lined the area.

Many sought out prime viewing spots and were there camped at the front of the police barricades, while others brought step stools and placed them in the middle of the crowd as they peered over to the other direction at the start of the 4 kilometer stretch.

During the trek across Copacabana beach, Francis lived to his well-known spontaneity that also proved to be a security headache in many occasions during his Brazilian visit this week as well, in which he often changed plans last minute.

Midway in to the stage, he stopped the popemobile to receive a large cup of mate -- a traditional Argentine herbal tea -- from someone in the crowd, planted kisses on babies and gave his white skullcap to a person who had sewn one for him.

13-year-old Tuanny das Gracas Reis of Rio de Janeiro stood with several members of her family at the very end, near the grand stage which was lined with brightly red carpeting and outfitted with a large crucifix for its background.

"I am so happy and very excited to see the pope," she said in Portuguese on her tippy toes at the street curb amongst a buzz of activity that Francis was nearing.

A few feet from her, a group of eight Chileans -- chosen by their military schools to represent the army, navy, police and air force -- and accompanied by a priest from each one, took turns snapping pictures of each other.

"This has been a very exciting week... We have been able to live the joy of being Catholic and to be next to people from all around the world with people that feel the same as we do," said Jose Larravide, 59, of Santiago, priest of the air force.

Screams broke out as the people on their step stools warned onlookers to get their cameras ready as Francis was approaching.

Nearly getting knocked over, the same people on their step stools had to fight for their spots, along with the people sitting on the shoulders of others as the crowds pushed closer to the barricades for a chance to see Francis as the popemobile inched closer.

"I wanted to do this with my daughter... This is a once in a lifetime opportunity...I wanted to do the journey together," said Carmen Alicia Zamora, 36, of Jamaica, New York as she watched Francis take the stage from a nearby screen.

Zamora was there with 24 people, including her nephew and sister-in-law from her Queens, New York parish, Shrine Church of St. Gerard Majella, which spent more than a year-and-a-half fundraising to come. The parish, part of a larger group of 225 people, represented the biggest American diocese attending the event.

At one point, Zamora and another member of the perish, Jasmine Gomez, 20, of Jamaica, New York had to use the bathroom and ended up near the stage where Francis was closing in.

The two were buried in the crowd when a photographer in the area switched spots with the pair so they could see Francis.

"It was a beautiful experience," Zamora said. "I'm just very thankful he did that so I could have seen him."