The sun rose over Copacabana beach Sunday morning, and 3 million young people assembled along the water’s edge. They were preparing for the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2013 with Pope Francis.
Most of those 3 million pilgrims had spent the night on the beach. The previous night they’d shared in Eucharistic adoration and Benediction with Pope Francis. The vigil lasted well into the night.
Pope Francis continued his relentless schedule by traveling along Atlantic Avenue in the popemobile, kissing babies and greeting the multitude. He even hopped out of the popemobile a few times to visit with some young people. The security detail must be getting used to his unpredictability by now. He is certainly his own man.
The citizens of Rio have been excellent hosts: warm, friendly and deeply Catholic. As one would expect, the majority of pilgrims were Brazilian, and they came from all over this vast land. They are the largest Catholic nation in the world.
One of the remarkable things I will always remember about this World Youth Day is how so many Brazilians came up to us bishops for a blessing. As we made our way back and forth to the main venues, Brazilians would stop us and ask for a blessing and photo! They loved the fact that their shepherds were in the streets, walking with the people. When Brazilians looked at bishops, they didn’t see just hierarchs or the leaders of an institution — they saw us as shepherds of the Good Shepherd.
Pope Francis challenged all of us to “go out and make disciples of all nations.” He kept repeating three things: Go, don’t be afraid and serve.
Over the weekend, he repeated the admonition that the Church cannot be self-referential. She must go out of herself and serve those who are on the periphery. Since his election, the Holy Father has said that if the Church does not bring the love of God to the poor, she is no better than an NGO (non-governmental organization).
I think history will show that World Youth Day in Brazil was one of the most successful of all World Youth Days. There were many skeptics and naysayers who doubted whether or not a Latin-American country could pull off an event of this magnitude. There were also fears of violence and unrest that perhaps kept some people away. But Brazil rose to the occasion.
Miraculously, even with a last-minute change in the venue for the vigil and the closing Mass, everything went off beautifully.
The Lord is always full of surprises. And so is Pope Francis.
Bishop James Conley is bishop of Lincoln, Neb. He writes from Rio de Janeiro.