By local estimates, 3 million people gathered on the night of Saturday, July 27, on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana Beach to sing and pray with Pope Francis, in the penultimate celebration of the 28th edition of the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day, held during this past week in the Brazilian city.
Aired both on television and streamed over the Internet, the event–which happens yearly in local parishes, but only becomes a global gathering every two or three years–precedes the closing Mass of WYD on Sunday, July 28.
While many people are familiar with the general goings-on at a modern Roman Catholic Mass–which, in its order of worship and Scripture readings, is uniform throughout the universal Church on any given day–the prayer vigil held in Rio may have seemed strange to especially non-Catholics.
Here’s video of the full prayer vigil (unfortunately there is no English voice-over nor subtitles):
Pope Francis took about 40 minutes to make his way through cheering crowds and clerical well-wishers to the stage/altar.
The event began with the “artistic interpretation” music-and-dance section (with more music interspersed throughout). In this case, the presentation centered on the story of Saint Francis of Assisi, the inspiration for the pope’s name (before, he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina).
Young performers dressed in white built the frame of a church on the stage, recalling a pivotal event in Francis’ life (a young man dressed as a tonsured friar stood in for the saint).
In a tumble-down stone chapel in Assisi, Italy, Francis heard a voice coming from the crucifix, asking him to “rebuild my church.” Starting out to repair the chapel, he soon realized–as the pope said in his message to the assembled youth–that his true mission was much larger…to rebuild the entire Catholic Church.
After the church was constructed on the stage, the white-clad workers listened quietly as young people recounted their stories of faith.
Most moving was the story of 23-year-old Brazilian Felipe Passos, who spoke from his wheelchair, which he has been using since a bullet in the neck from a home-invasion robber left him clinically dead and with little hope of recovery or even survival.
Prior to this, in the wake of World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain, Passos had promised keep himself chaste until marriage and to raise money and spiritually prepare so that his prayer group might attend this year’s WYD.
But when the robbers came after the money, saving it almost cost Passos his life. He recounted how his friends, family and community prayed for him while he was in a coma. And when he awoke, the first thing he did was ask to take Communion, and then he began to recover.
Passos said of his wheelchair, “This is my cross, the cross the Lord sent me to come closer to him, to live more openly his grace and love.”
He then silenced the clapping that broke out and urged everyone there to raise their crosses–whether a necklace or on a rosary–and contemplate for a moment in silence on the question, “What is the cross that the Lord has given me? What is the cross that He wants me to carry for His love?”
Shortly thereafterward, Pope Francis addressed the crowd–click here for the full text–beginning with urging the young people to take up Saint Francis’ task and rebuild the Church, beginning with themselves. He recalled how the week’s cold rain had rendered the original site for the Vigil and Mass–a field called “Campus Fidei,” or “Field of Faith,” outside the city–unusable, so the events moved to the beach.
“Lord willing,” he said, we might say that the real area of faith, the true ‘campus fidei,’ is not a geographical place–but, we, ourselves? Yes!”
He then discussed three aspects of what a field represents.
First, it’s a place to sow seeds, recalling Jesus’ parable about the differing fates of seeds that fell on various types of ground. Francis asked his listeners to contemplate whether the seeds of faith would find fertile ground in them.
Then, he discussed the field as a place to spiritually train to serve God.
“Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup!” he said to what no doubt were many soccer fans in the crowd (and Rio is host for the 2014 FIFA World Cup). “He offers us the possibility of a fulfilled and fruitful life. He also offers us a future with him, an endless future, eternal life.”
In the last example, that of a field as a construction site, he urged the listeners to be living stones of the Church, like the stones Saint Francis used to repair the ruined chapel.
“Jesus is asking us,” said Pope Francis, “to build up his Church, but not as a little chapel which holds only a small group of persons. He asks us to make his living Church so large that it can hold all of humanity, that it can be a home for everyone! To me, to you, to each of us, he says, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.'”
That last phrase, an exhortation of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, is the theme of this year’s WYD, and appeared in different languages on huge video screens behind the pontiff.
He closed with, “Dear friends, never forget that you are the field of faith! You are Christ’s athletes. You are called to build a more beautiful Church and a better world. Let us lift our gaze to Our Lady. Mary helps us to follow Jesus; she gives us the example by her own ‘yes’ to God: ‘I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me as you say.’ (Luke 1:38). All together, let us join Mary in saying to God, ‘Let it be done to me as you say!'”
The crowd responded loudly, then the pope said, “Amen.”
Then the serious business of the prayer vigil began. A large, modern-style circular monstrance (a decorative holder for an object of piety) was brought up, holding a large, consecrated Host, then fastened in place at the top level of the stage.
To Catholics, the Host, or the Eucharist, is more than the simple bread it appears to be. Once consecrated, it undergoes transubstantiation, and becomes in essence, if not in observable form, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ–the very flesh and blood He commanded the disciples to consume at the Last Supper, under the appearance of bread (and also wine).
In front of a rapt, respectful and often tearful audience that had largely sunk to its knees, Pope Francis prayed and incensed the monstrance. Following that was a long period of Eucharistic Adoration–in which Catholics sit or kneel in the physical presence of the Lord, as contained in the Eucharist, and pray or engage in quiet contemplation.
The 76-year-old pope sat–probably owing to his age–as all the other clergy went to their knees, along with many of the the faithful. There was a call in several languages for “deep silence,” and a eerie hush fell over the assembled multitudes, broken only by the sound of distant helicopters (and with one young man standing, arms outstretched, like the massive Christ the Redeemer statue on a mountaintop overlooking Rio).
After a period of absolute silence, there was more music–with all performers on their knees as well–including a song from American Catholic singer Matt Maher.
On Twitter, he posted a picture of himself behind the pope, saying, “Speechless. Grateful and humbled by the moment.”
After about 10 minutes–passed in silence except for the singers–there were multilingual prayers.
In English, “Lord Jesus, we thank you for this experience at World Youth Day, which leads us to proclaim the Kingdom of God, with joy and missionary witness, especially to the poor and most in need. Lord, we adore You.”
To the accompaniment of incense and bells, Pope Francis lifted a smaller version of the monstrance, also containing a Host, and displayed it to the crowd. That brought a smattering of applause and even a few cheers. The large monstrance was then unbolted from its place and borne away.
The ceremony concluded with the traditional hymn “Salve Regina” (“Hail, Holy Queen”), during which Pope Francis stood before a replica of the little statuette of the Virgin Mary brought up by Brazilian fishermen in 1717 and known as Our Lady of Aparecida, whose shrine the pontiff visited earlier in the week.
Finally, Pope Francis kissed the statue, made the Sign of the Cross and then exited quietly. Many of the crowd began preparations to spend the night on the beach, to be present for the closing Mass the next morning, after which the location and date of the next World Youth Day will be revealed.
Right now, the rumors are pointing toward Krakow, Poland, in 2015. Since it’s the hometown of Blessed John Paul II–who will be declared a saint this October–it could rival or even top Rio for attendance.