Watching live coverage of Pope Francis’ arrival at the World Youth Council in Rio de Janeiro in late July provided many grace-filled moments. Here was the Successor of St. Peter, the first Pope born and raised in the Americas, returning to the people to whom he ministered as a priest and bishop, in a pilgrimage of obvious joy. Even the problems occasioned by apparent “changes” in the route to the Presidential Palace were overshadowed by the gratitude and happiness that characterized both the Holy Father and the faithful who anxiously awaited his coming.
For every scheduled event, from the Pope’s arrival in Rio through his departure, the crowds were both enormous and enthusiastic. One was immediately reminded of the Pontificate of John Paul II, which most thought would never happen again as such. A million people in a crowd? What about the countless numbers gathered in the favela? Or the three million plus for the final Mass at Copacabana Beach? What about Francis’ visit with his Argentine people at St. Sebastian’s Cathedral; in addition to the huge size of that magnificent church, which accommodates 20,000, there were 30,000 more gathered outside.
Again and again, we saw Karol Wojtyla redux, albeit with shades of Blessed Pope John XXIII. I found myself leaning on every word, beautifully worked into memorable phrases, yet profoundly theological and compelling – so like the sermons of John Paul the Great, yet so different in approach and emphasis.
The joyous, unrestrained cheers of youths surrounding or listening to Pope Francis can hardly be forgotten. In the face of such gladness, where were the naysayers or those who discount the young as unimportant? It occurred to me that many who had wagered against such a reception by the young were as wrong as they were in Paris, for example, when not only the media and parents in general had dismissed beforehand the very concept of World Youth Day – until it happened and the young were all there, cheering John Paul II, while adults were forced toward the sidelines. (I recall hearing from one parish group of pilgrims that they were denied hotel space and eventually joined thousands of other youths overnight in an open field.)
Anyone who saw what happened in Rio will long recall it. Nor will many forget to thank the Holy Spirit again for choosing precisely the right person to take Peter’s place in a swiftly changing world. The times in which we live reach into the mystery of metahistory, almost overpowerfully so. A Pope like Francis appeared just at the right time.
The sights and sounds of the Via Crucis are sure to echo in the hearts and minds of whoever was privileged to have been there; it was dramatized so professionally, yet so reverently; so artistically, yet so realistically. Nor will anyone ever forget those images of the Holy Father’s trudging through the mud-soaked pathways of Rio’s worst slum and embracing the infants, children and youths there. (Remember Pope John Paul’s visit of 2 July, 1980. “The measure of riches,” he said then, “of money and luxury is not equivalent to the measure of the real dignity of a man.”)
But the final Mass celebrated by Francis on the four-mile strip of Copacabana Beach is almost impossible to erase from one’s mind’s eye. Imagine, over three million on hand! So many critics of the Papacy have been “certain” that the crowds which accompanied John Paul the Great would never be seen again. These critics were wrong. Francis has assumed John Paul’s mantle, in a sense. All the marvelous aspects of the Papacy and the Church are front and center again.
John Paul, reflecting on his pilgrimage to Brazil, proposed this question to those who met with him: “Para onde vais?” – “Where are you going?” In 1980, Brazil’s faithful had a meaningful response. Today, in 2013, that response is the same. It was of course Peter’s response; specifically, “Lord, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we ourselves steadfastly believe.” (Jn.6:69)
When John Paul landed at Fiumicino Airport after visiting Brazil, he said: “I have visited a living Church, rich in evangelical leaven.” Surely Pope Francis’ reflections after his pilgrimage were the same. The same can be said of Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visit to Brazil; on 9 May, 2007, he called Latin America “the Continent of Hope.”
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.