Brazilian crowds delight the free-wheeling pontiff
A wrong turn and milling masses are a nightmare for security officials, but pope plunges into seven-day visit with his common touch on display
A wrong turn sent a humble Fiat carrying Pope Francis into the thick of a frenzied Rio crowd, in his first minutes back in South America since becoming pontiff. It was a nightmare for security officials, but for the clearly delighted pope just another opportunity to connect.
Ecstatic throngs forced his motorcade to repeatedly come to a standstill, weeks after violent protests against the government paralysed parts of Brazil. Francis' driver turned into the wrong side of a boulevard at one point, missing lanes that had been cleared. Other parts of the pope's route to the city centre weren't lined with fencing, giving the throngs more chances to get close, with uniformed police nowhere in sight to act as crowd control.
The three dozen visible Vatican and Brazilian plainclothes security officials struggled to keep the crowds at bay. Francis, however, not only looked calm but got even closer to the people. He rolled down his back-seat window, waved to the crowd and touched those who reached inside. He kissed a baby a woman handed to him.
"His secretary was afraid," papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said. "But the pope was happy."
The pope is on a seven-day visit meant to fan the fervour of the faithful around the globe.
After finally making it past crowds and blocked traffic, Francis switched to an open-air vehicle as he toured around the main streets in downtown Rio through mobs of people who screamed wildly as he waved and smiled. He left his popemobile - the bulletproof one — in the Vatican garage so he could better connect with people during the church's World Youth Day.
The Vatican insisted they had no concern for his safety as his vehicles eased through the masses, but Lombardi said there might have been some "errors" that need correcting.
Many in the crowd looked stunned to see the pope, with some standing still and others sobbing loudly.
As many as one million young people are in Rio for the Catholic youth fest.
On the plane en route to Rio, the pope lamented that an entire generation of young people risked not knowing what it's like to work thanks to an economic crisis that has seen youth unemployment skyrocket in many European countries while leaving the poor of the developing world behind.
"People get their dignity from work, they earn their bread," he said. "Young people in this moment are in crisis."
Outside the Guanabara government palace where the pope was officially welcomed, Alicia Velazquez, a 55-year-old arts teacher from Buenos Aires, waited to catch a glimpse of the man she knew well when he was archbishop of her hometown.
"It was so amazing when he was selected, we just couldn't believe it. We cried and hugged one another," Velazquez said. "I personally want to see if he's still the same simple and humble man whom we all knew. I have faith that he's remained the same."
Francis displayed that humility in greeting President Dilma Rousseff, saying he understood that to really know Brazilians, one must pass through their heart. "So let me knock gently at this door," Francis said in Portuguese at the welcome ceremony. "I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ."
Francis' week-long schedule underscores his commitment to making his pontificate focus on the poor. He will walk through one of Rio's shantytowns, or favelas, and meet juvenile offenders, an extension of his call for a more missionary church that goes to the peripheries to preach.