After more than 25 years of covering wars, drug trafficking, riots, protests , coup d’états and, yes, five Papal tours in Latin America, I have to admit that I am not very easy to impress.
But without hesitation, I confess that the scene on Copacabana Beach on Saturday night and the early hours of Sunday was extraordinary. The most emblematic beach of Rio de Janeiro turned into a human carpet. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of young Catholic pilgrims who had come to see and hear Pope Francis on his next to last World Youth Day event, made camp on the famous , and enormous , beachfront Copacabana . Many had brought sleeping bags, others just pieces of cardboard and a blanket. A few came better prepared with inflatable mattresses.
For at least two kilometres, it was impossible to walk: the improvised pilgrim camp went all the way up to the entrances of Copacabana’s most expensive hotels and apartment buildings overlooking the beach.
Exhausted pilgrims from 175 countries slept side by side like sardines in a tin, while next to them those who still had energy sang and danced, including a group of nuns from Argentina who bounced up and down to a Catholic hymn with a distinct rhythm of samba. Not even the unbearable stench from the overflowing portable toilets could wipe the smiles off their faces. (Although the lines were so long in front of the loos that I saw one young girl praying that she would make it in time.)
'Only the Pope can save us'
None of this was supposed to have happened. The venue for the final weekend event of World Youth Day (which despite its title in English actually lasts five days) was an enormous field the size of roughly 156 extra large football stadiums. It is located about an hour away from Copacabana, and was supposed to be equipped with everything necessary to cater to an estimated one and a half million pilgrims. Toilets, food, space for camping out, etc. The problem is that prolonged rain – which is not so unusual in winter here in the Southern Hemisphere-turned the venue into a pool of mire, unfit for anything except a mud bath .
Rio de Janeiro’s local and State officials had no choice but to tell the increasingly growing number of Pilgrims to stay in Copacabana, which was supposed to be used for only the first Papal Mass, when less people were expected. Transportation to and from the Papal events was insufficient and at times chaotic. Electronic cash machines ran out of money, so many Pilgrims from Brazil and abroad found themselves penniless . Many were sick and cold from days of bad weather. The headline of Rio’s largest newspaper, O Globo, was merciless: “Only the Pope Can Save Us”, it read, referring not to divine salvation but to what it considered the ineptitude of city officials to carry off such a large event.
The Papal visit has clearly been a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, which will be held in Rio. To give local, state and federal officials some credit, no one calculated that so many people –up to three million- would show up to see the Pope. But that is still less than the number expected to come to Brazil for the upcoming international sports events. Just as well that the Pilgrims were young, extremely motivated and certainly more generous than those who are judging Brazil’s preparedness for the upcoming sports mega-events.
Still, as I look over the beach at the millions who are now waiting for their final chance to hear Pope Francis , what this often incredulous journalist will go away with is the extraordinary ability of these young people with a common purpose to overcome adversity and project a joy that is impossible for anyone of any religion – or no religion - to ignore.