Rio de Janeiro and a Hurricane Named Francis


Sandcastle at Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach.
Sandcastle at Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach. (photo: Jeanette De Melo)

After the initial jubilation of having been granted World Youth Day 2013, organizers in the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro quickly found themselves in an uphill battle: a less-than-friendly Brazilian government focused more on the upcoming soccer World Cup of soccer and the 2016 Olympic Games; the city’s reputation for shady tourist attractions, like the Rio Carnival; and the well-known issues of urban violence.

Aside from these challenges, in the face of which Archbishop Orani João Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro was always optimistic, there was another not so small detail: an ailing Pope Benedict.

In the midst of a rocky start, one that involved convincing government officials that World Youth Day was not a “practice run” for the Olympics, but, rather, a much bigger undertaking, organizers received the same shocking news the rest of the world did on Feb. 11: Pope Benedict had decided to resign. That month was clearly a low point for organizers. There was the uncertainty of whether the next pope would even go to Rio or the possibility that he would change the date.

But with the election of the first Latin-American pope in the Church’s history, anticipation for World Youth Day Rio — the second WYD to be held in Latin America — ramped up in a matter of days.

Pope Francis, in fact, was not only Latin American. He quickly showed his “Brazilian” credentials at his first meeting with journalists after his election, when he revealed how his friend, Franciscan Cardinal Claudio Hummes, former archbishop of São Paulo — who  sat next to him during the conclave — influenced him in the selection of his name by whispering to him, “Do not forget about the poor.”

Before the conclave, there was even a running joke among Brazilians and other Latin Americans that if an Argentinian were elected pope, he would probably choose to be called “Jesus II,” a playful reference to the notorious Argentinian pride in identity, culture and country.

But after the meek Francis appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s March 13, Brazilians felt that a pope from Argentina — a country that they see as their regional rival, in both soccer and South-American geopolitics — was also their pope.

“The fresh winds of Pope Francis were quickly turned into a welcomed storm of hope, joy and enthusiasm that will soon hit the Guanabara Bay and beyond,” read a surprisingly positive editorial in the Jornal de Rio de Janeiro, in reference to the new pope coming to the narrow sea bay that the Portuguese conquistadors thought was a river, thus christening it “Rio de Janeiro.”

The article, published in May, was one of the first acknowledgements from the secular media that the Pope was coming to Rio and, with him, some 2 million youth. 

The original expectations for World Youth Day Rio estimated 1 million, mostly local participants, with limited participation from countries outside of South America.

But since Pope Francis confirmed his attendance, the number of journalists interested in covering the event forced organizers to reopen registration. Registration for media closed in mid-June, with a record number of 5,500 credentialed journalists; that is 500 more than the record set in Madrid two years ago.

Also, a deluge of Latin-American youth was expected, mostly from Argentina, but also from Mexico and Chile. Josery Pantoja, a spokeswoman from World Youth Day’s Media Center, told me, “World Youth Day goes beyond just the religious media: The whole world will follow World Youth Day now.”

“Just as the whole world has been curiously following Pope Francis’ first few months, they seem to be even more intrigued in this unique global encounter of youth that will bring people not only from traditional Catholic countries like those in South America, but from non-traditional countries, where the Church is young and small but vibrant and growing,” she said with typical carioca (native to Rio) enthusiasm.

Inés San Martín, the international press coordinator, also emphasized this point: “The number of media outlets that will come to World Youth Day is really impressive.” She was particularly surprised by the number of Japanese, Chinese and Korean press registered to attend. “I think this World Youth Day will truly be historic,” San Martín said.

“We have already surpassed Madrid, and many of them [members of the press] did not go to Madrid,” she explained. “This means that even those young people worldwide who cannot come to Rio de Janeiro will share the experiences of World Youth Day through the international press.”

For both Pantoja and San Martín, there is no question that the media interest is related to “the humility, simplicity and clarity of Pope Francis.” But in their hearts, they hope that “Hurricane Francis” will billow the sails of the vast majority of Brazilian youth who are not associated with a parish or an ecclesial movement. The vast number of Millennials are known, among youth ministers especially in Latin America, as the “non-convoked” (uncalled).

Without any significant prejudices against the Catholic Church, the “non-convoked” are usually indifferent and extremely hard to reach by usual means of communication. Eradically these youth show up at some events, but no one knows exactly what lured them or how they came to know about it.

When he was Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis created a pilgrimage for young people to the Marian Shrine of Luján in Argentina. By the time he was elected pope, the pilgrimage, held every October, was bringing close to 1 million youth, out of which 70% are “self-convoked,” meaning that they freely join their peers without being associated with any group.

Organizers at WYD in Rio have been hoping and praying for a similar tidal wave of young people.

In 2011, more than 700,000 unregistered youth showed up at Cuatro Vientos Airfield in Madrid, causing WYD services to utterly collapse. After that experience and the unprecedented goodwill that Pope Francis has generated, Rio organizers were making extra sure that preparations at Campus Fidei in Guaratiba, a gigantic open airfield, part of an old plantation 10 miles west of the city, were ready for the hurricane-force winds of Pope Francis.

Said Pantoja, “A hurricane we are so vigorously praying for.”

Alejandro Bermudez, the Register’s Latin-America correspondent, is executive director of Catholic News Agency.