RIO DE JANEIRO (RNS) Pope Francis spent Tuesday (July 23) resting following his arrival here in his first international trip as pope during which his car was mobbed by throngs of well-wishers who excitedly closed in on his convoy and prevented the pontiff from reaching his reception ceremony on time.
His arrival animated tens of thousands of young Catholics cramming the Rio city center, as they waved flags, chanted slogans and swarmed the four-door Fiat he was riding in.
“It was so amazing when he was selected, we just couldn’t believe it. We cried and hugged one another,” Alicia Velazquez said. “I personally want to see if he’s still the same man as simple and humble whom we all knew. I have faith that he’s remained the same.”
Francis’ driver missed lanes that had been cleared on a boulevard, taking the car down a lane that was not lined with fencing and with no uniformed police in sight to control crowds.
Dozens of Vatican and Brazilian plain-clothes security officials had trouble keeping the crowds back but it did not appear to bother Francis. The bulletproof popemobile was left in Rome.
Francis rolled down his back-seat window, waved to the crowd and touched those who reached inside. He kissed a baby a woman handed to him.
Francis acknowledged the crowd’s enthusiasm at an official welcoming ceremony at Rio’s Guanabara government palace.
“I have learned that, to gain access to the Brazilian people, it is necessary to pass through their great heart, so let me knock gently at this door,” Francis said. “I ask permission to come in and spend this week with you.”
Francis is in Brazil for World Youth Day, an international gathering of young Catholics initiated by Pope John Paul II. He said aboard his plane that he’s concerned about the plight of young people, especially those growing up jobless and isolated in a poor economy.
“His secretary was afraid, but the pope was happy, with his hand out the window waving,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters of the drive into Rio. “It was an interesting way to arrive.”
Protests flared also outside the official welcoming ceremony, although the pope wasn’t the direct target of the discontent.
Francis has no public events planned for his first full day in Rio, although World Youth Day activities — the opening ceremonies and a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Orani Joao Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro at the Copacabana Beach — are scheduled to start for more than 300,000 Catholics who have come here from all over the world.
The original program — put together by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI — called for two full days of rest. But Francis insisted on adding extra activities on Wednesday, including a visit to the Marian shrine at Aparecida, where he visited in 2007 and was lead author of a document issued by a gathering of Latin American bishops that called for the church to re-evangelize the region.
Brazilians said they were happy to see the pope in Latin America, where he said he hopes to reinvigorate the Catholic faith on a continent that was converted to Catholicism centuries ago but has seen a drop in congregations.
“We really need a renovation of faith,” said Rio schoolteacher Renato Oliveira, who came with his wife to see the pontiff.
Francis warned during his flight from Rome that the global slowdown of the economy runs a risk of “having a generation that hasn’t worked. Young people (at) this moment are in crisis.”
During his weeklong visit, Francis will meet with young Catholics in this Latin American country where more than half of the population of the city and surrounding state no longer consider themselves Catholic.
The state of Rio de Janeiro is the least Catholic of the country; barely 45 percent profess the faith, according to the newspaper “O Globo.”
Brazil is in better shape than many developed nations; unemployment is at an all-time low. But there is discontent, demonstrated by the mass protests last month against a bus fare increase of 20 cents and a perception the country is failing to improve basic services for all social classes — even as it spent billions to build stadiums for the Olympics and World Cup.
More than 1 million people may pack the white sands of Copacabana Beach to attend Mass celebrated by Francis on Sunday. He also will visit a tiny chapel in a shantytown.
Brazil has the most Catholics of any country. Nearly 65 percent of Brazilians say they are Catholic, but that is down 9 percentage points from a decade ago.
“To win over people to its ideas, not necessarily to become Catholics, but to win approval for the views the church holds, requires that the church be viewed positively, not just negatively,” said Tom Quigley, retired policy adviser on Latin America for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Pope Francis, he adds, is helping that cause.
The pope’s trip includes official receptions and appearances with senior political leaders.
The pope also will receive young offenders and inaugurate the wing of a Catholic hospital that treats drug addicts — issues that reflect his priorities as pope of showing solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged, Quigley says.
Some who came here for World Youth Day say his style will bring Catholics back to the church.
“His visit can bring new life to the church here,” said Cynthia Mazzi, a Brazilian pilgrim from Sao Paulo. “It would be like a new birth.”
(David Agren writes for USA Today.)