AN estimated three million people poured on to Rio’s Copacabana beach yesterday for the final mass of Pope Francis’ historic trip to his home continent.
Speaking from a white stage and looking out over the enormous crowd, the Pope 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 in his final homily of World Youth Day.
Nearly the entire 2.5 mile crescent of Copacabana’s broad beach overflowed with flag-waving faithful, some of them taking an early morning dip in the Atlantic and others tossing T-shirts, flags and football jerseys into the pontiff’s open-sided car as he drove by. Francis worked the crowd, kissing babies, taking a sip of mate tea handed up to him and catching gifts on the fly.
Even the normally stern-faced Vatican bodyguards let smiles slip as they jogged alongside the car, caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowd.
Many of the youngsters on hand for the mass spent the night on the beach, an all-night party to end the Catholic youth festival, with pilgrims wrapped in flags and sleeping bags to ward off the cold. They danced, prayed and sang – and waited in long lines in front of the arrays of portable bathrooms along the beachfront.
“We were dying of cold but it was worth it,” said Lucrecia Grillera, an 18-year-old from Cordoba, Argentina, where Francis lived for a time before becoming pope. “It was a tiring day, but it was a great experience.”
By morning, vendors selling World Youth Day trinkets, T-shirts, hats and flags were doing brisk business as pilgrims snapped up souvenirs before heading home. Jehovah’s Witnesses stood by stands stocked with pamphlets offering to explain “What does the Bible really teach” but there were few takers.
The Vatican said more than three million people were on hand for the Mass, based on information from World Youth Day organisers and local authorities who estimated two-thirds were from outside Rio.
That was far higher than the one million at the last World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011 or the 850,000 at Toronto’s 2002 concluding mass.
Only Pope John Paul II’s Mass during his 1995 visit to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, topped Rio’s numbers, with an estimated five million people taking part. Third place among papal masses now goes to Rome World Youth Day in the 2000 Jubilee year, when two million people participated. A similar number attended John Paul’s final mass in Krakow, his Polish hometown, in 1979, during his first visit to his homeland as pope.
As if recalling that historic mass, Francis announced yesterday that the next World Youth Day would be held in Krakow in 2016.
The presidents of Brazil, Francis’ native Argentina, Bolivia and Surinam were present for the mass, as were the vice presidents of Uruguay and Panama. Receiving a special honour was a couple Francis met on Saturday.
They had brought him their anencephalic baby daughter to be blessed. Francis invited them to participate in the offertory procession yesterday, at which the father wore a T-shirt that read “Stop abortion”.