Pope Francis was yesterday to lead his first big Mass since arriving in Brazil, officiating at the country’s most revered Catholic shrine and touting his “church for the poor” message.
The first Latin American and Jesuit pontiff was due to arrive at 12:30pm in Aparecida, where big crowds were waiting to get close to him for an event that Brazil’s leaders hope can steer a week-long papal visit back on course.
Rio de Janeiro’s subway broke down on Tuesday, causing chaos for throngs of pilgrims in the city for World Youth Day, a huge Catholic gathering, and a trip already marked by security lapses.
Brazil’s ability to handle this week is seen as a test of its capacity to host the World Cup next year and the Olympic Games in 2016.
In Aparecida, a town of 35,000 people that sits halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, there are huge welcome banners and the area has been spruced up.
The pope was to lead Mass for 15,000 people inside the basilica and for another 200,000 outside, with 5,000 police and soldiers providing security.
“The pope is the best mayor we can get — in less than a week, he managed to have the streets repaved with asphalt,” beamed local resident Maria Elena de Oliveira ahead of the event.
After Mass, the pontiff was to travel in an open-top jeep to cover the more than 2km separating the shrine and the Bom Jesus seminary where he would rest and eat lunch.
The 76-year-old previously visited the famous shrine at Aparecida — which houses a 18th century dark statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary — during a bishops conference in 2007.
The pontiff’s representatives have said the Catholic leader this week aims to reconcile the young with the message of a church able to renew itself at a time of crisis over a financial scandal and the sexual abuse of minors.
“He wanted to come to Aparecida by Marian devotion [a willingness to dedicate oneself to the Virgin Mary] and to officiate the first Mass with the Brazilian people, but by visiting the shrine he is also saluting the whole region,” said priest Roni Dos Reis, a spokesman for the event.
“I think that for us, Latin Americans, here in Aparecida he will also outline this social message of commitment to the poor, to give dignity and not paternalism to people,” he added.
The Pope is in Brazil mainly to join the World Youth Day celebrations, which aim to pull in 1.5 million enthusiastic Catholic youths.
Last year, 10 million pilgrims visited Our Lady of Aparecida, which was proclaimed Brazil’s patroness in 1930 and is celebrated on Oct.12. Francis will become the third pope to visit the shrine — after John Paul II, in July 1980, and Benedict XVI, in May 2007.
However, despite his popularity, the pope has faced protests over the US$53 million spent on organizing his visit and World Youth Day.
Without referring to the criticism or to last month’s nationwide street protests in Brazil to demand better public services and an end to corruption, Francis said: “I have neither gold nor silver, but I bring the most precious that has been given to me, Jesus Christ.”
He called for a guarantee of basic human rights for the youths of the world, such as “security and education.”