RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Pope Francis I took his mission to re-energize his flock to legions of young Catholics on a Brazilian beach Friday, reaching out those who have lost faith due to church failings.
The Argentine pontiff was greeted by hundreds of thousands of people on Copacabana beach for a second straight night of religious ceremonies marking World Youth Day, a week-long gathering of young Catholics.
Latin America’s first pope sat in front of a giant cross on a grandiose white stage during a somber re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross – scenes of a bloodied Jesus heading to his crucifixion.
He used his pulpit to make a political message in a country that was rocked last month by massive protests against corruption, lagging public services and the cost of hosting next year’s World Cup.
“On the cross, Jesus is united with so many young people who have lost faith in political institutions, because they see in them only selfishness and corruption,” the pope said.
“He unites himself with those young people who have lost faith in the Church, or even in God because of the incoherence of Christians and ministers of the Gospel,” the 76-year-old said.
The pope, who was elected in March to reform the Church, was making a veiled reference to the pedophilia and financial scandals that have rocked the Vatican in recent years.
Vatican officials have made no secret of the fact that the pope’s first trip abroad since his election aims to re-energize followers. Brazil remains the world’s biggest Catholic country, but the flock has shrunk while Evangelicals gain ground.
“The cross of Christ bears the suffering and the sin of mankind, including our own. Jesus accepts all this with open arms, bearing on his shoulders our crosses and saying to us: ‘Have courage,'” Pope Francis said.
As the ceremony wrapped up, some 200 protesters angry at Rio state Governor Sergio Cabral marched to within meters of the stage. At the same time, in São Paulo, 300 protesters ransacked several banks in a show of support.
Earlier, adoring crowds cheered wildly as an open-top “Popemobile” took Francis along the crescent-shaped beach better known for skimpy bikinis and caipirinha cocktails than Bibles and religious ceremonies.
“Pope Francis has a direct way of saying things and young people connect with that,” said Soledad Bohle, a 21-year-old student from Argentina.
Before the beach ceremony, the pope met convicts, heard five young believers confess their sins and had lunch with a dozen others.
“I told him that he should visit my country because we need him. He told me that Venezuelans have no sins,” said Estefani Lescano, a 21-year-old Venezuelan student who confessed to the pope in a Rio park.
After his meeting with convicts, the Argentine pontiff emerged on a the balcony of a church-owned palace to address the crowd, urging them to cherish the elderly on Grandparents Day.
“How important grandparents are for family life, for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society,” he said.
Rio authorities, meanwhile, have been scrambling to ensure his visit goes more smoothly after several logistical headaches this week.
Rain has poured on the tropical city since the second day of the visit, soaking a field outside the city that was supposed to host hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and the pope for a weekend vigil and mass.
A giant stage had been built in Guaratiba, but the area turned into a mud field, forcing authorities to move the events to Copacabana.
Workers had toiled at the Guaratiba site, dubbed “field of faith,” since January.
It was the latest embarrassment for local officials who are preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
When the pope arrived on Monday, his small Fiat was forced to a standstill as adoring pilgrims swarmed the car.
Visitors, meanwhile, have had to endure public transport headaches, with the metro breaking down for two hours on Tuesday.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes took responsibility for the city’s logistical problems.
“If you ask me to grade the organization of World Youth Day, I would say we are closer to zero than to 10,” Paes told CBN radio while quickly giving the pope and residents “a 10.”
“I am aiming for perfection, but when I cannot achieve it, I don’t blame others and do not shirk my responsibility. Blame it on me, but don’t destroy the image of our city,” he said.