A sea of pilgrims packed a Brazilian beach on Sunday after spending the night on the sand for a final mass with Pope Francis, ending a visit aimed at reigniting the Catholic faith.
Authorities expected three million people to bid farewell to Latin America’s first pope and endless crowds of flag-waving faithful gave him a rock star-like welcome as he cruised by in his open-sided pope mobile.
The Argentine pontiff, who flies back to Rome in the evening, waved at the adoring throng, kissed babies and sipped mate from his native country handed to him by a pilgrim as his white jeep took him to a giant beach stage on Copacabana.
Legions chanted “Long live the pope!” as the crowd threw soccer jerseys and other gifts to the pope in this sports-mad country that will host the World Cup next year.
Presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and Evo Morales of Bolivia were on hand for the World Youth Day mass, a gathering of young Catholics from around the world.
The pope has used his first trip abroad since his election in March to stir passion in a Church that has seen its flock dwindle in Brazil in the face of rising secularism and evangelical churches.
The head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics urged his young flock to shake up their congregations and spread the gospel. He exhorted fellow clergymen to get out of their parishes and meet the faithful face-to-face, especially in the slums.
During a vigil on Copacabana on Saturday, he delved into political and social troubles in Brazil and elsewhere, voicing support for young protesters pressing for change.
“The young people in the street are the ones who want to be actors of change. Please don’t let others be actors of change,” the 76-year-old Argentine pope said, adding that they should use a “Christian response” to social and political concerns.