RIO DE JANEIRO, Rio de Janeiro: Legions of pilgrims welcomed Pope Francis to Rio de Janeiro on Monday, lining the streets of the tropical city and stopping his car to touch Latin America’s first pontiff.
Crowds cheered as the 76-year-old Argentine stepped on the tarmac of Rio’s airport to be met by President Dilma Rousseff before heading downtown and hopping on an open-top jeep to meet the crowds.
Pope Francis has come to Brazil, an emerging power with a shrinking Catholic flock, to promote his vision of a more humble church and to attend World Youth Day, a week-long event drawing more than one million young Catholics.
Excitement about his first overseas visit brought thousands of people into the streets, chanting “long live the pope,” singing and waving the flags of Argentina and other countries.
The pope, whose decision to get as close as possible to the people made authorities nervous, crossed the metropolis in a small four-door car with his window rolled down.
Pilgrims stopped his convoy several times to shake his hand. Bodyguards struggled to control the crowd at times and the pope allowed a woman to bring her child, whom he kissed.
The pope then climbed on his open-top jeep and waved at the faithful as he continued his journey among the crowds before talks with Rousseff at the Rio state governor’s palace.
“To see all these young people together, it re-energizes us.”
Anaia Betarte, a 17-year-old from Uruguay, said she came to “see change, something new, something refreshing.”
The pope’s decision to leave behind his bulletproof “Popemobile” raised local concerns and Rio authorities have deployed 30,000 troops and police in the wake of massive protests.
In recent weeks, more than a million Brazilians have taken part in the demonstrations against the cost of public transport, corruption and the billions spent on hosting the 2014 World Cup.
The pope’s message of a “poor Church for the poor,” may play well in Brazil, which is now an economic powerhouse but still has millions living in shantytowns like the favelas rising on Rio’s hillsides.
Speaking to reporters on the papal plane, Pope Francis warned against marginalizing the young and the elderly.
“The global crisis has brought nothing good to young people. I saw the data on youth unemployed last week. We run the risk of having a generation without work,” said Francis, who carried his own luggage onto the plane, in keeping with his trademark simplicity.
Francis also lamented “the culture of rejection” of the elderly “despite the life wisdom they give us.”
But even the pope’s visit faces protests. Atheists and the Anonymous protest group planned to demonstrate outside the governor’s palace against the $53 million from public coffers spent on the pope’s visit.
He is scheduled to rest on Tuesday and then visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida between Rio and Sao Paulo on Wednesday.
A large stage with a huge cross was being built on the famed Copacabana beach, where Francis will address throngs of young Catholics on Thursday after visiting a favela.
Brazil is the world’s biggest Catholic country, but its flock is shrinking as more people turn to Evangelical churches or drop out of organized religion.
More than 90 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic in 1970, according to the census.
But a poll by Datafolha Institute showed Sunday 57 percent now call themselves Catholic, while 28 percent say they are Pentecostal or non-Pentecostal Evangelicals.
In Rio, only 40 percent are Catholic while almost a quarter are “without religion,” according to a separate poll in the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.