At a World Youth Day 2013 that culminated with one of the largest crowds — an estimated 3.5 million people — ever to assemble for a papal Mass, Pope Francis returned to his native South America July 22-28 for a momentous week filled with unique story lines for both the Holy Father and the event itself.

From the moment Pope Francis arrived in Brazil, the stage was set for an unprecedented WYD. Described as Rio’s “first pilgrim” by Archbishop Orani João Tempesta, the Argentine Pope arrived at 4pm local time July 22 night to cheers from tens of thousands of pilgrims from across the world.

“He left Latin America and now returns as the first pilgrim of World Youth Day,” Archbishop Tempesta remarked in his words of greeting. And referencing Rio de Janeiro’s famous statue atop Corcovado Mountain, he continued, “Christ the Redeemer welcomes him with open arms.”

On his way to Guanabara Palace for the official welcome ceremony, where he was received by Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff and other dignitaries, Pope Francis took advantage of a major security scare to demonstrate his nearness to the people. When his car was swarmed by hundreds of well-wishers after taking a wrong turn into a low-security area, Francis rolled down his back-seat window, waved to the crowd and touched those who reached inside, even kissing a baby who was handed to him.

The image of Christ the Redeemer embracing the unique phenomenon of the first South-American pope in the Church’s 2,000-year history, on the occasion of his first continental homecoming, was eloquently evoked again the following day.

At the WYD opening Mass, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, drew attention to the unexpected reality that this second South-American World Youth Day — one that was “desired and prepared by Pope Benedict XVI” — had unexpectedly turned out to have been “presided over by Pope Francis, the first Latin-American Pope. Truly, the ways of the Lord are inscrutable!”

Continued the cardinal, “This WYD is being held at the feet of the imposing statue of Christ the Redeemer of the Corcovado. He is the real protagonist of this event! His heart beats with infinite love for each one of you, and his wide, open arms are ready to welcome you all!”


Aparecida and Copacabana

After resting July 23, the Holy Father spent the next day at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, becoming the third pope to visit the shrine, following John Paul II in 1980 and Benedict XVI in 2007.

“When the Church looks for Jesus, she always knocks at his Mother’s door and asks, ‘Show us Jesus,’” Francis said, while celebrating Mass in the basilica of the world’s largest Marian shrine. “It is from Mary that the Church learns true discipleship.”

“Christians cannot be pessimists,” he said during his homily, reiterating a theme already common in his pontificate: Christians must be “witnesses of joy.”

On July 25, Pope Francis received the keys of the city of Rio de Janeiro from Mayor Eduardo Paes and blessed the 2016 Olympic flags. He spent the afternoon in the favela (shanty town) of Varginha.

Later, at Thursday’s welcoming ceremony at Copacabana beach, the Holy Father emphasized the importance of penance and the Eucharist as part of living in Christ.

“We are all tempted to put ourselves at the center, to think that we alone build our lives or that our life can only be happy if built on possessions, money or power. But it is not so,” he insisted.

“‘Put on Christ’ in your life; place your trust in him, and you will never be disappointed! You see how faith accomplishes a revolution in us, one which we can call Copernican, because it removes us from the center and restores it to God; faith immerses us in his love and gives us security, strength and hope.”

Multiple addresses during the week were directed at the 45,000 Brazilian volunteers and nearly 2 million Brazilian pilgrims in attendance. In smaller gatherings, Francis also spoke directly to Brazil’s political, economic and religious leaders. Brazil’s Catholic population of 123 million, considered the largest of any country in the world, has fallen marginally since 2000, despite an increase in the country’s total population. An estimated 65% of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholic in 2010, down from 74% in 2000, according to statistics from the Pew Research Center.

In his opening address July 22, he told the Brazilian people, “I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ!”

“This continent has received the proclamation of the Gospel, which has marked its history and borne much fruit. Now, this proclamation is entrusted to you, that it may resound with fresh power,” he said directly to Brazilian and South-American youth during his homily at the July 28 closing Mass. “The Church needs you: your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you.”

Though Brazilians accounted for the overwhelming majority of pilgrims and volunteers, Pope Francis’ home country of Argentina came in second, with an estimated 40,000 pilgrims in attendance.

On Thursday, Pope Francis added an event to his schedule and met with 5,000 Argentinian pilgrims inside Rio’s Cathedral of St. Sebastian, as an estimated crowd of 25,000 Argentinians gathered outside.

In an unscripted address, he told the youth to “make noise” by taking the Church “into the streets.” “Please, do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ,” he pleaded. “Make yourselves heard!”

Argentine pilgrims like Pato Bellavigno, 21, feel especially close to the former archbishop of Buenos Aires.

“More than any politician or soccer player, Pope Francis is representing our country to the world,” he said. “We’re all one Church, one family; but in Argentina, we loved Pope Francis even before he became pope. We came here to support him and grow with him.”

Perhaps Pope Francis’ most unique impact to the week was his outreach to the poor and most in need. Personified by Wednesday night’s embracing of drug addicts at Rio’s St. Francis of Assisi Hospital, Thursday morning’s visit to Varginha and Friday’s outreach to incarcerated youth, Pope Francis’ WYD impact solidified his reputation as a pope of the people who is calling for a Church for the poor.

Prior to Pope Francis’ arrival in Rio de Janeiro, many youth from around the world participated in a mission week, where they too served the poor and marginalized. The location of WYD in South America, the theme “Go, and make disciples of all nations” and Francis’ own example made mission work a prominent aspect of WYD 2013.

Australians Dominic Wright, 29, and his wife, Allie Court, 30, spent nine days reaching out to disabled orphans in Mexico City, some of whom couldn’t speak or even leave their beds. Part of a 22-person group from Sydney, Wright and Court focused on prayer through daily Eucharistic adoration and spreading the joy of Christ. The group used their mission week not just to serve, but to dig deeper into personal prayer and their own understanding of their call to be disciples of Christ.

“Vocation has been a huge thing for the young people in our group,” said Court, “focusing on our mission and how we can share that with others.”


Closing Ceremonies

After celebrating Saturday morning Mass with WYD bishops, priests and seminarians, Pope Francis met again with President Rousseff and ate lunch with Brazilian bishops. At 8:30pm, he spoke to the world’s youth for the second-to-last time on the soft sands of Copacabana beach at the prayer vigil.

“Dear friends, never forget that you are the field of faith,” the soccer-loving Pope said, making multiple references to next year’s World Cup in Brazil. “Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup!”

“You are Christ’s athletes! You are called to build a more beautiful Church and a better world.”

After more than 3 million weary pilgrims withstood rain and surprisingly low temperatures throughout Saturday night, the weather prepared to improve for the first time all week. When Pope Francis returned for Sunday’s closing 10am Mass, the sun was beaming down on the Church’s youth.

“Dear young friends, as you return to your homes, do not be afraid to be generous with Christ, to bear witness to his Gospel,” he said during his Sunday homily.

Concluding his final sermon of what could be the Church’s most influential WYD in the past decade, Pope Francis declared that, for the world’s youth to make disciples of all nations, the time is now.

“Jesus Christ is counting on you!” he exclaimed. “The Church is counting on you! The Pope is counting on you!”

Register correspondent Chris Kudialis filed this report from Rio de Janeiro.

Register editor in chief Jeanette De Melo contributed to this report.