WYD 2013: Colourful rucksacks, four million hosts and a final mass

Three million people attend World Youth Day closing Mass on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro (CNS)

As Argentines carried on as usual on a grey Monday morning on Avenida Libertador, in downtown Buenos Aires, the metal street kiosks showed front-page photos of the millions of Catholics massed on the curved Copacabana Beach.

“I think it’s wonderful” said Soledad, a waitress in a local hotel. “Everyone was following the Mass yesterday. The Pope belongs to us.” Nearby on Arroyo, a small side road near Libertador, a small Argentine flag hung patriotically, with Vatican yellow stuck on top of it.

The Mass yesterday in Copacabana drew three million pilgrims, according to official Rio estimates. Four million host wafers were created for the event. Hordes of pilgrims descended upon the beach at dawn, itching to join the faithful, having slept in beds rather than braved a night on the beach. They wore yellow, red and green, Rio 2013 rucksacks, easily identifiable – a badge of honour and a guarantee for respect and protection on the city’s streets.

The Pope, speaking to the people on the hazy sunny day, urged the masses, with his typical person-to-person register, to reach out “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!” The protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal population of Brazil has grown from 15 per cent to 22 per cent of Brazilians, while Catholics have dipped from 74 per cent to 65 per cent of the population.

The Mass came second as the biggest Papal service ever held, beaten by Manila in 1995 with five million, and beating two million in Rome for World Youth Day 2000.

At the Mass, where people were stood atop skyscrapers lining the beach, craning to get a better view, the Pope urged people to wean themselves off clerical culture, to guard against setting up priests as moral saints. The night before he had urged against watching life from the stands, or the “balcony” – speaking out to the graced and favoured, and perhaps even inviting God down from his perch up on the clouds.

The streets were literally trampled with detritus by the end of the day. Three million people don’t swing by for free. Cabbies complained of the lack of work due to city centre closures, all the while watching the show on their in-taxi TVs. Chemists watched the Mass from their raised counters.

Finally, the service closed, and a group, equaling twice the population of central London collectively walked out of Copacabana Beach.

The waves will keep rolling in, the peace will keep there, for a while, and the Cristo Redentor is still on the Corcovado. We can pray for the same collective peace and joy again, in Kraków 2016. It seems too long to wait.