Pilgrims Throng Copacabana Beach for Opening Mass

WYD pilgrims from Austin, Texas, attend the opening Mass on Copacabana beach.
WYD pilgrims from Austin, Texas, attend the opening Mass on Copacabana beach. (photo: Jeanette DeMelo)

A half-million pilgrims flooded Copacabana beach last night for the opening Mass of World Youth Day, celebrated by Archbishop Orani Joao Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro. The event marked the official start of World Youth Day.

Archbishop Tempesta welcomed pilgrims during his homily: “This marvelous city became more beautiful with your presence.”

“Infect everyone with the joy and the peace of Christ, as sentinels of the morning, working for the renewal of the world in the light of God’s plan,” he told the throng.

The head of the Church in Rio spoke of his gratitude that his city is “the first place to welcome the first apostolic journey of the first Latin-American pope in history.”

The Copacabana beach front, which stretches nearly 2.5 miles, is the location for Pope Francis’ reception with WYD pilgrims tomorrow evening and for the Stations of the Cross, which the Holy Father will lead on Friday evening.

Pilgrims gathered in the rainy, windy weather on the beach hours before the opening ceremony began. Some young people from the U.S. shared their expectations for World Youth Day.

Clarice Balconi-Lamica of Austin, Texas, traveled with three other people for her first World Youth Day.

“My expectations would be to come to a greater understanding of the youth in Catholicism. And hopefully to broaden my faith and meet a lot of new people,” she said.

Though she knows very little about Pope Francis, Balconi-Lamica said, “His face is beautifully humble, and he is a wonderful leader of the Church.”

She embraces Francis as a Holy Father, as she did with the last two popes, yet this time with a greater depth, she explained, “I have recently come into a greater understanding and a constant conversion in my own faith, so that, to me, has given me the opportunity to see more what the Holy Father represents in the Church.”

Jaime Gandara, who is also from Austin, attended WYD in Toronto in 2002 and Madrid in 2011. He said, “Every World Youth Day is different; you can’t expect anything.”

For him, WYD is about seeing “Christ in the people and in the experiences you encounter.”

A group of 120 high-school students traveled to World Youth Day from Long Island, N.Y. They arrived in Brazil on July 19 and, already, they have visited Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, as well as the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in the state of São Paolo, where Pope Francis will say Mass today.

They described Pope Francis as “the people’s Pope — a down-to-earth but very spiritual guy.” One young man from this group said he hopes to “take home some spiritual lessons” from his encounter with the Holy Father.

Laura Dandorpe and Philip Lovely of Dayton, Ohio, are in the midst of their second World Youth Day. They went to Madrid in 2011.

Dandorpe described Pope Francis as being like “a grandpa.” Yet Lovely was impressed by his youthfulness. They watched the Pope arrive in Rio and were shocked by his openness as he rode through the streets in his popemobile.

For Dandorpe, WYD is an opportunity to see youth from all over the world who are happy in their faith. “It really confirms my own faith,” she said.

Yet the experience doesn’t stop with WYD; she and Lovely said they have to take what they gain in Rio to others: “It’s not just about faith here; it’s at home, too!”