Not long after Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in March, Vatican watchers around the world realized that, as big news as the papal conclave was, Pope Francis’s true debut on the world stage might come in July at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Started by Blessed Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day has occurred every year since 1986 on a local level. But every two or three years, it is transformed into a global gathering of millions of Catholic youth at different cities around the world–from Manila to Denver, Toronto, Madrid, Sydney, and now to Rio de Janeiro.
The South American pope confirmed early on that he would attend WYD13, beneath the all-encompassing arms of the Christ the Redeemer, the massive Art Deco hilltop statue that has dominated the Rio skyline since its completion in 1931.
Arriving on Monday, July 22, Pope Francis climbed into a silver Fiat, opened his window, and left it open for most of what turned out to be a wild ride.
At one point, a wrong turn took the motorcade out of cleared lanes into tight quarters between a center divider and a row of buses, forcing the cars to come to a halt along the way — causing fears for both the 76-year-old pontiff and the raucous crowd.
After weeks of often violent protests over economic conditions in the Brazilian city, Vatican and local security forces, along with yellow-shirted WYD volunteers, struggled to keep back adoring throngs of WYD pilgrims and locals. They pressed close and ran alongside the small car to get a glimpse or photo of the pontiff, who just kept smiling and waving (and even occasionally kissing babies, as is his custom).
In one of his earliest homilies on Holy Thursday, Francis admonished his fellow clerics to stay involved with their parishioners, saying, “Be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.”
Quoted in an Associated Press story, papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, “His secretary was afraid. But the pope was happy.”
In the same AP story, Buenos Aires, Argentina teacher Alicia Velazquez said of her former archbishop, “I personally want to see if he’s the same man, as simple and humble whom we all knew. I have faith that he’s remained the same.”
At one point, Francis switched from the Fiat to a version of white “Popemobile,” which had a forward windscreen but no sides.
Of course, there were protesters, a fixture on any papal visit, but much of these were outside the government palace. Twenty-two-year old Rio native and art student Christopher Creindel told the AP, “We’ve got nothing against the pope. Nobody here is against him. The protest is against our politicians.”
Lombardi confirmed that Brazilian authorities found a homemade explosive device near the basilica at Aparecida, a shrine devoted to the Virgin Mary which Francis will visit on July 24. Vatican security was informed, but Lombardi did not appear overly worried, telling reporters, “The concerns are that the enthusiasm is so great that it’s difficult to respond to so much enthusiasm for the pope. But there is no fear and no concern.”
Francis’ visit also coincides with a growing trend of South American youth to abandon the Catholic faith for secular life or Evangelical Protestant churches. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, 16-year old Brazilian Catholic Luisa Marazzi lamented the lack of young people at Mass, adding, “The problem has been the lack of young leaders, and even the language they use in church, sometimes it’s hard to understand.”
Francis may not be young in years, but much like John Paul II before him, he seems to have the ability to charm young and old–and even cynical media types.
While Lombardi usually speaks for the pope, about 70 journalists got a rare opportunity to chat with the pontiff aboard the plane on the way to Brazil.
While telling the reporters that he does not give interviews but he enjoys “their company,” Francis expressed concern about “throwaway” society, which neglects the energy of the young and the wisdom of the elderly.
He also addressed global economic woes, which make it increasingly difficult for young people, even college-educated ones, to find good jobs that would allow them to become self-sufficient and raise families.
“We have the risk of having a generation that did not have work,” said Francis, emphasizing the role of work in forming the “dignity of the person.”
“Young people today are in crisis,” he said, “and we are used to disposable culture that happens all too often to the elderly,” adding that it is now also happening to jobless youth.
Francis said, in conclusion, “I ask you to help me and work for the good of the society of young people and the elderly.”
After the jubilant chaos of the motorcade–which apparently left the pontiff unruffled and still cheerful–Pope Francis met with Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff and other dignitaries at the Guanabara Palace.
The pope gave a speech–click here for the full text–in which he reiterated some of the themes from his earlier comments.
Christ has confidence in young people and entrusts them with the very future of his mission, “Go and make disciples.” Go beyond the confines of what is humanly possible and create a world of brothers and sisters! And young people have confidence in Christ: they are not afraid to risk for him the only life they have, because they know they will not be disappointed.
He added, “Young people are the window through which the future enters the world, thus presenting us with great challenges.
Pope Francis said:
Our generation will show that it can realize the promise found in each young person when we know how to give them space; how to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; how to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; how to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be; how to pass on to them lasting values that make life worth living; how to give them a transcendent horizon for their thirst for authentic happiness and their creativity for the good; how to give them the legacy of a world worthy of human life; and how to awaken in them their greatest potential as builders of their own destiny, sharing responsibility for the future of everyone.
World Youth Day continues through Sunday, July 28. Today is the Opening Mass on Copacabana Beach, with the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro (but not Pope Francis).
The official Papal Welcoming Ceremony is on Thursday, July 25, on Copacabana, also the site for the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) on Friday, July 26.
The big events of any World Youth Day are the Evening Candlelight Vigil, with Pope Francis on Saturday, July 27, in Guaratiba, about 32 miles from Rio; and the Morning Papal Mass, followed by the Angelus prayer, on Sunday, July 28, also at Guaratiba.
There are other events, all of which, along with the major ceremonies, are covered live (with repeats) on Catholic cable/satellite/radio network EWTN, with interviews and on-site commentary.