Pope Francis

Pope's audience at Rio's Copacabana beach rivals Rolling Stones concert

1.7m fans saw Stones rock Copacabana beach in 2006 - Francis draws 1.5m shrieking followers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 July, 2013, 3:14am

Pope Francis has shown that his message of renewed faith in Jesus Christ can compete with the Rolling Stones and their Sympathy for the Devil.

Seven years after the rock legends lured throngs to Copacabana in Brazil for an epic concert, organisers of a Catholic youth event say the pope attracted 1.5 million to Rio de Janeiro's legendary beach.

Apart from the New Year's fireworks that attract countless revellers to the crescent moon-shaped beach every year, nobody had brought so many people to Copacabana until Mick Jagger and Keith Richards came to town.

On February 18, 2006, the British superstars drew the biggest crowd of their storied career.

Various estimates say between one million and 1.7 million people flooded the beach to see their "Bigger Band" tour.

But 76-year-old Pope Francis showed he commands just as much star power as Jagger, who turned 70 yesterday.

Crowds shrieked and chanted the pope's name as his jeep with open sides and a glass top took him to a giant white stage on the beach. On the stage, he stood with a towering cross illuminated by a blue light. Large screens and speakers beamed his ceremony to people standing at the other end of the beach.

Showing his rebellious side, the pope urged young Catholics to shake up the church and make a "mess" in their dioceses by going out into the streets to spread the faith. It is a message he put into practice by visiting one of Rio's most violent slums and opening the church's World Youth Day on a rain-soaked Copacabana beach.

No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained, in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself
Pope Francis

Dubbed the "slum pope" for his work with the poor, he received a rapturous welcome in the Varginha shanty town on Thursday, part of a slum area of northern Rio so violent it is known as the Gaza Strip. He seemed entirely at home, wading into cheering crowds, kissing people young and old and telling them the Catholic Church is on their side.

"No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world," he told a crowd of thousands who braved a cold rain and stood in a muddy soccer field to welcome him. "No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained, in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself."

After he arrived at the beach-front stage, though, the crowd along the streets melted away, driven home by the pouring rain that brought out vendors selling the plastic ponchos that have adorned cardinals and pilgrims alike during this unseasonably cold, wet week.

In an indication of the havoc wreaked by four days of steady showers, organisers made an almost unheard-of change in the festival's agenda, moving tonight's vigil and climactic Sunday mass to Copacabana beach from a rural area 50 kilometres from the city centre. The terrain of the area, Guaratiba, had turned into a vast field of mud, making the overnight camping plans of pilgrims untenable.