Rio de Janeiro – Pope Francis wants to ignite the passion of Roman Catholics for their faith while on his first international trip; and the boisterous, sometimes frenzied welcome he got on his first day in Rio seemed to fill those hopes.
Returning to his home continent for the first time since becoming pontiff, Francis smiled broadly as thousands of people rushed his car yesterday after it became stuck behind buses and taxis when his driver made a wrong turn on a main avenue in Rio’s centre.
It was a nightmarish scene for security officials, but clearly a delight and another opportunity to connect for this pope, who was scheduled to take a day off today for rest and private meetings.
The ecstatic throngs forced his motorcade to repeatedly come to a standstill, weeks after violent protests against the government paralysed parts of Brazil. Francis’ driver turned into the wrong side of a boulevard at one point, missing lanes that had been cleared.
Other parts of the pope’s route to the city centre weren’t lined with fencing, giving the throngs more chances to get close, with uniformed police nowhere in sight to act as crowd control.
The three dozen visible Vatican and Brazilian plain-clothes security officials struggled to keep the crowds at bay. Francis not only looked calm but got even closer to the people. He rolled down his backseat window, waved to the crowd and touched those who reached inside. He kissed a baby a woman handed to him.
“His secretary was afraid, but the pope was happy,” said the papal spokesperson, the Reverend Federico Lombardi.
The pope is here on a seven-day visit meant to fan the fervor of the faithful around the globe. That task has grown more challenging as Catholics stray, even in strongholds of the religion such as Brazil, yet it seemed to come easily to Francis even on the drive from the airport to an official opening ceremony.
After finally making it past crowds and blocked traffic, Francis switched to an open-air vehicle for a cruise along main streets past crowds of people who screamed wildly as he waved and smiled. He left his popemobile – the bulletproof one – in the Vatican garage so he could better connect with people during the church’s World Youth Day.
Vatican officials insisted they had no concern for the pope’s safety as his vehicles eased through the masses, but Lombardi acknowledged there might have been some “errors” that need correcting.
“This is something new, maybe also a lesson for the coming days,” Lombardi said.
Many in the crowd looked stunned to see the pope, with some standing still and others sobbing loudly.
“I can’t travel to Rome, but he came here to make my country better … and to deepen our faith,” Idaclea Rangel, a 73-year-old Catholic, said, choking through her tears after the pope passed by.
As many as 1 million young people from around the world are expected in Rio for the Catholic youth fest, a seemingly tailor-made event for the Argentine-born pope, who has proven enormously popular in his four months on the job.
But the fervor of the crowds that regularly greet Francis on St Peter’s Square was nothing compared with the raucous welcome in Rio.
On the plane trip to Rio, Francis had lamented that an entire generation of young people risked not knowing what it’s like to work thanks to an economic crisis that has seen youth unemployment skyrocket in many European countries while leaving the poor of the developing world behind.
“People get their dignity from work, they earn their bread,” he told reporters aboard the plane. “Young people in this moment are in crisis.”
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