World Youth Day 2013: Pope Francis inspires Rio

World Youth Day 2013: Pope Francis inspires Rio

Peter Westmore

For the millions of Catholics living in Brazil and the young people from around the world who travelled to Rio for World Youth Day 2013, Pope Francis' visit was a live-changing experience.

In his speeches, homilies and personal interactions with ordinary people, Pope Francis left an indelible impression, reinforced by his visits to slum dwellers, drug addicts, prisoners and many poor people during his week in the country.

From the theme of World Youth Day – "Go and Make Disciples of All Nations" – the Holy Father repeatedly challenged young people and encouraged them to become missionaries of Jesus Christ.

"We cannot keep shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel," he told clergy and religious at a Mass on 27 July.

Direct language

To the more than three million pilgrims gathered for the closing Mass on 28 July, he issued a challenge: "Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits he sends us to everyone ... Do not be afraid to go out and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those farthest away, the most indifferent."

In Rio just four months after Pope Francis' election, the world received a deeper glimpse of the man chosen to lead the universal Church.

The Pope showed his energy, his relevance and his vision of the Church. To young people, he spoke in a language they understand - direct, simple and related to the realities they experience: "Let Christ be your strength don't get drunk on other things," he told them during the papal reception.

To the mass of young people at the closing Mass, the Holy Father said, "The best evangelisers [of young people] are other young people".

While, at times, the large international event resembles a huge but wholesome rock concert, World Youth Day is essentially an encounter with Jesus Christ through the Successor of Peter and the Church, through the gathering of bishops, priests and religious and the celebration of the sacraments.

Further, it is an encounter with other young people, who are uplifted and inspired by a meeting with so many others who share their faith.

The young people in Rio responded enthusiastically. They recognised in Francis a pope of the people who is down-to-earth and simple, who shares deeply in their lives and sufferings. Many had tears in their eyes when the Pope spoke, and the crowd's well-timed cheers showed they were tuned into his words.

His actions had equal impact. When a nine-year-old boy jumped a barrier and ran up to the popemobile, Francis stopped to give him a hug. The crying child whispered in the Holy Father's ear, "I want to be a priest of Christ," and then Francis shed his own tears and encouraged the boy to pursue his dream. That moment showed Francis' warmth and emotional depth.

During a meeting with Brazil's leaders, a girl with Down syndrome presented the Pope with a gift. She smiled as she handed him a simple card, and he touched her face tenderly and beamed his own genuine smile.

During his trip, in two separate gatherings, Pope Francis met with Brazilian bishops and the Latin American and Caribbean bishops (CELAM). According to the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, these two talks were the longest and most significant addresses so far in Francis' pontificate. During these, the Pope outlined a vision of the Church's mission that focused on "an encounter with the Master and an encounter with men and women who await the message."

He emphasised the ways that God acts to restore brokenness. "God always enters in poverty, littleness," he said. And, later, he said that "God's way is through enticement, allure. ... Mission is born precisely from this Divine allure, by this amazement born of encounter."

He asked: "Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? ... Is the Church still able to move slowly: to take time to listen, to have the patience to mend and reassemble? ... Or is the Church herself caught up in a frantic pursuit of efficiency?"

He emphasised formation, collegiality and solidarity as ways to face challenges within the Church. He spoke of the permanence of the missionary call and the task of the Church to "go against the tide".

Improbable icon

Jeffrey Weiss, who is not Catholic, writing in the Religion News Service, described Pope Francis as "the improbable pop culture icon".

He said, "After the triumph of Brazil and the plane ride back, is there any question that Francis is an international pop culture hero? For Catholics and non-Catholics across the globe, the positive buzz is all but unrelenting. And how many of those singing his praises today could have picked him out of a lineup in February?"

He added, "Francis stepped into leadership at a time when the reputation of his organisation was tied to repeated scandals and failures. And literally from the moment Francis was named as pope, he's generated a series of unscripted examples of living out particular traditional Catholic values.

"From the selection of his papal name to immediate rejection of some pomp and ceremony to visibly and literally embracing the poor and outcasts to that remarkable, spontaneous give-and-take with reporters on the plane ride back from Brazil."

And Italian journalist Marco Politi, a columnist for the Italian newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, said, "There has been a worldwide change in attitudes toward the papacy since the election of Francis. There has been a great outpouring of sympathy, not only among believers but also from people who are very secular or far from the church."

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