RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Pope Francis has shown the world his rebellious side, urging young Catholics to shake up the church and make a "mess" in their dioceses by going out into the streets to spread the faith. It's a message he put into practice by visiting one of Rio's most violent slums and opening the church's World Youth Day on a rain-soaked Copacabana Beach.
Francis was elected pope on a mandate to reform the church, and in four short months he has started doing just that: He has broken long-held Vatican rules on everything from where he lays his head at night to how saints are made. He has cast off his security detail to get close to his flock, and his first international foray as pope has shown the faithful appreciate the gesture.
He's going further Friday, meeting with a small group of young convicts. He'll also hear confessions from some Catholic youth and then head back to Copacabana beach for a Stations of the Cross procession.
Dubbed the "slum pope" for his work with the poor, Francis received a rapturous welcome in the Varginha shantytown on Thursday, part of a slum area of northern Rio so violent it's known as the Gaza Strip. The 76-year-old Argentine seemed entirely at home, wading into cheering crowds, kissing people young and old and telling them the Catholic Church is on their side.
"No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!" Francis told a crowd of thousands who braved a cold rain and stood in a muddy soccer field to welcome him. "No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself."
It was a message aimed at reversing the decline in the numbers of Catholics in most of Latin America, with many poor worshippers leaving the church for Pentecostal and evangelical congregations. Those churches have taken up a huge presence in favelas, or shantytowns such as Varginha, attracting souls with nuts-and-bolts advice on how to improve their lives.
The Varginha visit was one of the highlights of Francis' weeklong trip to Brazil, his first as pope and one seemingly tailor-made for the first pontiff from the Americas.
The surprise, though, came during his encounter with Argentine pilgrims, scheduled at the last minute in yet another sign of how this spontaneous pope is shaking up the Vatican's staid and often stuffy protocol.
He told the thousands of youngsters, with an estimated 30,000 Argentines registered, to get out into the streets and spread their faith and make a "mess," saying a church that doesn't go out and preach simply becomes a civic or humanitarian group.
"I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!" he said, speaking off the cuff in his native Spanish. "I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!"
Apparently realizing the radicalness of his message, he apologized in advance to the bishops at home.
Later Thursday, he traveled in his open-sided car through a huge crowd in the pouring rain to a welcoming ceremony on Copacabana beach. It was his first official event with the hundreds of thousands of young people who have flocked to Rio for World Youth Day. Vatican officials estimated the crowd at 1 million.
Cheering pilgrims from 175 nations lined the beachfront drive to catch a glimpse of the pontiff, with many jogging along with the vehicle behind police barricades. The car stopped several times for Francis to kiss babies — and take a long sip of his beloved mate, the traditional Argentine tea served in a gourd with a straw, which was handed up to him by someone in the crowd.
After he arrived at the beach-front stage, though, the crowd along the streets melted away, driven home by the pouring rain that brought out vendors selling the plastic ponchos that have adorned cardinals and pilgrims alike during this unseasonably cold, wet week.
In an indication of the havoc wreaked by four days of steady showers, organizers made an almost unheard-of change in the festival's agenda, moving the Saturday vigil and climactic Sunday Mass to Copacabana Beach from a rural area 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the city center. The terrain of the area, Guaratiba, had turned into a vast field of mud, making the overnight camping plans of pilgrims untenable.
The news was welcome to John White, a 57 year old chaperone from the Albany, New York, diocese who attended the past five World Youth Days and complained that organization in Rio was lacking.
"I'm super relieved. That place is a mud pit and I was concerned about the kid's health and that they might catch hypothermia," he said. "That's great news. I just wish the organizers would have told us."
Francis' visit to the Varginha slum followed in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who visited two such favelas during a 1980 trip to Brazil, and Mother Teresa, who visited Varginha itself in 1972. Her Missionaries of Charity order has kept a presence in the shantytown ever since.
Like Mother Teresa, Francis brought his own personal history to the visit: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio frequently preached in the poverty-wracked slums of his native city, putting into action his belief that the Catholic Church must go to the farthest peripheries to preach and not sit back and wait for the most marginalized to come to Sunday Mass.
Francis' open-air car was mobbed on a few occasions as he headed into Varginha's heavily policed, shack-lined streets, but he never seemed in danger. He was showered with gifts as he walked down one of the slum's main drags without an umbrella to shield him from the rain. A well-wisher gave him a paper lei to hang around his neck and he held up another offering — a scarf from his favorite soccer team, Buenos Aires' San Lorenzo.
"Events like this, with the pope and all the local media, get everyone so excited," said Antonieta de Souza Costa, a 56 year old vendor and resident of Varginha. "I think this visit is going to bring people back to the Catholic Church."
Addressing Varginha's residents, Francis acknowledged that young people in particular have a sensitivity toward injustice.
"You are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good," Francis told the crowd. "To you and all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished."
It was a clear reference to the violent protests that paralyzed parts of the country in recent weeks as Brazilians furious over rampant corruption and inefficiency within the country's political class took to the streets.
Francis blasted what he said was a "culture of selfishness and individualism" that permeates society today, demanding that those with money and power share their wealth and resources to fight hunger and poverty.
"It is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry — this is an act of justice. But there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy," he said.
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - Pope Francis has a packed schedule Thursday in Rio de Janeiro, where he will bless the Olympic flag, visit a slum and address upward of 1 million young Roman Catholics on Copacabana beach.
On his first full day of activities in Brazil on Wednesday, Francis traveled from one of the most important shrines in Latin America, Our Lady of Aparecida, to what he called a "shrine of human suffering" - a hospital in Rio that treats substance abusers.
Both events had a common theme that the humble pope has stressed during his young papacy: a denunciation of the "ephemeral idols" of money and power and a need for the Catholic Church to focus on the poor and outcasts of society.
Francis is in Brazil for World Youth Day, a church event that brings together young Catholics from around the world roughly every three years.
The blue and white flags from Francis' native Argentina fluttered above the crowd that Italian media estimate could reach 1 million. Civil protection crews closed the main streets leading to the square to traffic and set up barricades for nearly a mile (two kilometers) along the route to try to control the masses.
For nearly a half-hour, Francis toured the square in an open-air jeep, waving and occasionally kissing babies handed up to him as if he had been doing this for years. At one point, as he neared a group of people in wheelchairs, he signaled for the jeep to stop, hopped off, and went to bless a man held up to the barricade by an aide.
The installation Mass is a simpler affair than the 2005 ceremony that launched Pope Benedict XVI's papacy, in keeping with Francis' sober style, but it is still grand enough to draw 132 official delegations and religious leaders from around the world.
Among the VIPs is the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, who will become the first patriarch from the Istanbul-based church to attend a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago. His presence underscores the broad hopes for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue in this new papacy.
But it is Francis' history of living with the poor and working for them while archbishop of Buenos Aires that seems to have resonated with ordinary Catholics who say they are hopeful that Francis can inspire a new generation of faithful who have fallen away from the church.
"I think he'll revive the sentiments of Catholics who received the sacraments but don't go to Mass anymore, and awaken the sentiments of people who don't believe anymore in the church, for good reason," said Judith Teloni, an Argentine tourist guide who lives in Rome and attended the Mass with a friend.
Francis has made headlines with his simple style since the moment he appeared to the world on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, eschewing the ermine-lined red velvet cape his predecessor wore in favor of the simple papal white cassock, then paying his own bill at the hotel where he stayed prior to the conclave that elected him pope.
During Tuesday's Mass, Francis will receive the woolen pallium, or stole symbolizing his role as shepherd of his flock, and also the simple gold-plated silver fisherman's ring that is a symbol of the papacy.
A wax cast of the ring was first presented to Pope Paul VI, who presided over the second half of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that revolutionized the church. Paul never wore it but the cast was subsequently made into the ring that Francis chose among several other more ornate ones.
Francis will receive each of the government delegations in St. Peter's Basilica after the Mass, and then hold an audience with the visiting Christian delegations on Wednesday. He has a break from activity on Thursday; a gracious nod perhaps to the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is being installed that day in London.
As a result, Welby won't be representing the Anglican Communion at Tuesday's installation Mass for Francis, sending instead a lower-level delegation. All told, six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes and 11 heads of government will be attending, the Vatican said.
More than a half-dozen Latin American presidents are attending, a sign of the significance of the election for the region. Francis, named after the 13th century friar known for his care of the most disadvantaged, has made clear he wants his pontificate to be focused on the poor, a message that has resonance in a poverty-stricken region that counts 40 percent of the world's Catholics.
For Jews, Orthodox and other religious leaders, the new pope's choice of Francis as his name is also important for its reference to the Italian town of Assisi, where Pope John Paul II began conferences encouraging interfaith dialogue and closer bonds among Christians.
The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, entered the St. Mary Major basilica through a side entrance just after 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) and left about 30 minutes later. He had told a crowd of some 100,000 people packed in rain-soaked St. Peter's Square just after his election that he intended to pray Friday to the Madonna "that she may watch over all of Rome."
He told cardinals he would also call on retired Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday and celebrate an inaugural Mass in the Sistine Chapel, where cardinals on Wednesday elected him leader of the 1.2 million-strong church in an unusually quick conclave.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope and first non-European since the Middle Ages, decided to call himself Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor.
The new pope immediately charmed the crowd in St. Peter's that roared when his name was announced.
Waving shyly, he told said the cardinals' job was to find a bishop of Rome. "It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome."
The 76 year old Bergoglio, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, was chosen on just the fifth ballot to replace the first pontiff to resign in 600 years. In the past century, only Benedict, John Paul I in 1978 and Pius XII in 1939 were elected faster.
Francis spoke by phone with Benedict, who has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo, and was to visit him on Friday, according to U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The visit is significant because Benedict's resignation has raised concerns about potential power conflicts emerging from the peculiar situation of having a reigning pope and a retired one.
Benedict's longtime aide, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, accompanied Francis to the vist at St. Mary Major, the ANSA news agency reported. In addition to being Benedict's secretary, Gaenswein is also the prefect of the papal household and will be arranging the new pope's schedule.
Francis' election elated Latin Americans, who number 40 percent of the world's Catholics but have long been underrepresented in the church leadership. On Wednesday, drivers honked their horns in the streets of Buenos Aires and television announcers screamed with elation at the news.
"It's a huge gift for all of Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait," said Jose Antonio Cruz, a Franciscan friar at the St. Francis of Assisi church in the colonial Old San Juan district in Puerto Rico. "Everyone from Canada down to Patagonia is going to feel blessed."
The new pontiff brings a common touch. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina's capital.
He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
"As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years — that in each other, we see the face of God," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
As the 266th pope, Francis inherits a Catholic church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.
While Latin America still boasts the largest bloc of Catholics on a single continent, it has faced competition from aggressive evangelical churches that have chipped away at strongholds like Brazil, where the number of Catholics has dropped from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 65 percent today.
Francis is sure to bring the church closer to the poverty-wracked region, while also introducing the world to a very different type of pope, whose first words were a simple, "Brothers and sisters, good evening."
He asked for prayers for himself, and for Benedict, whose stunning resignation paved the way for his election.
"I want you to bless me," Francis said in his first appearance from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, asking the faithful to bow their heads in silent prayer.
Cardinals elected a new pope to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics on Wednesday, overcoming deep divisions to select the 266th pontiff in a remarkably fast conclave.