Not all of Sunday’s attendees were paying attention to the Mass: Kids posed for random photos with people holding flags, snoozed and packed up their makeshift camps. Finding food was a core concern, with long lines of bedraggled pilgrims snaking out of cafes and ice cream vendors being mobbed by youths starved for breakfast.
The presidents of Brazil, Francis’ native Argentina, Bolivia and Suriname were on hand for the Mass, as were the vice presidents of Uruguay and Panama. Receiving a special honor was a couple Francis met on Saturday after Mass at Rio’s cathedral; they had brought him their anencephalic baby daughter to be blessed. Francis invited them to participate in the offertory procession on Sunday, at which the father wore a T-shirt that read “Stop abortion.”
After Sunday’s Mass, Francis was meeting with the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as holding a thank-you audience with some of the 60,000 volunteers who organized the youth festival. He was leaving for Rome on Sunday night.
“It was such an excellent week. Everybody was in such good spirit; you could just feel a sense of peace,” said Denise da Silva, a Rio de Janeiro Catholic who was sitting alone on the beach Sunday morning, a Brazilian flag painted on her face. “I have never seen something here in Rio so marvelous as what we have just lived.”
Francis spent the week emphasizing a core message: of the need for Catholics, lay and religious, to shake up the status quo, get out of their stuffy sacristies and reach the faithful on the margins of society or risk losing them to rival churches.
According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil dipped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the church’s share of the total population dropping from 74 percent to 65 percent. During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals jumped from 26 million to 42 million, increasing from 15 percent to 22 percent of the population in 2010.
Francis repeated that stirring message Sunday in his homily, saying he was counting on young Catholics in particular to be “missionary disciples” in spreading the faith.
“Bringing the Gospel is bringing God’s power to pluck up and break down evil and violence, to destroy and overthrow the barriers and selfishness, intolerance and hatred, so as to build a new world,” he said.
It seemed the message was getting through.
“I used to go to Mass every week, but now I go every other week, if that,” said Larissa Miranda, a 20-year-old law student from rural Rio de Janeiro state who moved to the city two years ago. “But this event had made me realize that I need to get active again and get back to church every week.”
The Rev. Jean-Luc Zadroga, a Benedictine monk who was leading a group of 14 students from a Catholic university in Latrobe, Pa., said it was clear Francis had connected with the crowd, particularly the locals.
“He’s really trying to reach out to Catholics who have fallen away from the church or disappointed with the church, and I think it’s working,” he said.
• Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja and Bradley Brooks contributed to this article.