RIO DE JANEIRO – Pope Francis has completed a historic trip to his home continent by celebrating mass to three million people on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach.
The colossal crowds cheered the first Latin American pope in a remarkable response to his message that the Catholic Church must shake itself up and get out into the streets to find the faithful.
Nuns mixed with bikini-clad young women as nearly the entire 2.5-mile crescent of Copacabana’s broad beach in Rio overflowed with people, some of them taking an early morning dip in the Atlantic and others tossing flags and football shirts into the pontiff’s open-sided car as he drove by.
Many of those at the vigil had tears in their eyes as they listened to Francis’ call for them to not be ‘part-time Christians’ and to build up their church like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was called to do.
‘Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup!’ Francis said, drawing cheers from the crowd in this football-mad nation.
He urged young Catholics to go out and spread their faith ‘to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent.’
‘The church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you!’ he said to applause.
The Pope was set to return to Rome tonight after a week-long trip, once he had met the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean and held a thank-you audience with some of the 60,000 volunteers who organized the youth festival.
‘It was such an excellent week, everybody was in such good spirit, you could just feel a sense of peace,’ said Denise da Silva, a Rio de Janeiro Catholic who was sitting alone on the beach Sunday morning, a Brazilian flag painted on her face.
‘I have never seen something here in Rio so marvelous as what we have just lived.’
According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil dipped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the church’s share of the total population dropping from 74 per cent to 65 per cent.
During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals skyrocketed from 26million to 42million, increasing from 15 per cent to 22 per cent of the population in 2010.
The Rev. Jean-Luc Zadroga, a Benedictine monk who was leading a group of 14 students from a Catholic university in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, said it was clear Francis had connected with the crowd, particularly the locals.
‘He’s really trying to reach out to Catholics who have fallen away from the church or disappointed with the church and I think it’s working,’ he said.