RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Pope Francis presided over one of the most solemn rites of the Catholic Church on Friday, a procession re-enacting Christ's crucifixion that received a Broadway-like treatment befitting its improbable location, Rio's hedonistic Copacabana beach.
Copacabana, which hosts Carnival and Rolling Stones concerts when bikini-clad beauties aren't sunbathing on its white sands, lived up to its reputation by staging a wildly theatrical, and very Latin telling of the Way of the Cross, complete with huge stage sets, complex lighting, a full orchestra and a cast of hundreds acting out a modern version of the biblical story.
The procession is one of the mainstay events of World Youth Day, designed to remind young Catholics about the root of their faith that Christ died to forgive their sins.
Francis tried to drive that home in remarks to the crowd, huddled in jackets on a chilly but finally rain-free night, telling them Jesus bears all the suffering of the world: of the families whose children fall prey to the "false paradise" of drugs, of the hungry "in a world where tons of food are thrown out each day," of those who are persecuted for their religion, their beliefs "or simply for the color of their skin."
"Jesus is united with so many young people who have lost faith in political institutions, because they see in them only selfishness and corruption," Francis said in another reference to the violent protests that broke out in Brazil last month against rampant corruption and inefficiencies in the government.
At the start, Francis greeted some special guests who had a place of honor on the stage: 35 "cartoneros" — trash recyclers from Argentina whom he invited to participate in the Rio festival, continuing a relationship he started as archbishop of Buenos Aires. There, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would celebrate Masses for the cartoneros, prostitutes and others on the margins of society.
After the pope left Copacabana, a group of about 200 anti-government protesters arrived near the stage, the latest in hundreds of such demonstrations to hit Brazil since June. Police pushed back some of the protesters as they tried to gain access to the stage. The pope himself, who has long lashed out against political corruption, has lent encouragement to peaceful protests. The protesters began leaving the beach about an hour after arriving.
Francis started his day Friday with another World Youth Day standby, hearing the confessions of five young pilgrims in a Rio park.
"It was just five minutes, it followed the regular ritual of confession, but then Francis stayed and talked with us," said one of the five, Estefani Lescano, 21, a student from La Guaira, Venezuela. "It was all very personal. He told us that young people have the responsibility of keeping the church alive and spreading the word of Christ."
Later, Francis met privately with a few juvenile detainees, a priority ever since his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires and an expression of his belief that the church must reach out to the most marginalized and forgotten of society.
Even now as pope, he calls a group of youths in a Buenos Aires detention center every two weeks just to keep in touch, and one of his most memorable gestures as pope has been his Holy Thursday Mass at a juvenile detention center in Rome where he washed the feet of young offenders.
On Friday, other young offenders presented Francis with a large homemade rosary made out of Styrofoam balls, each one bearing the names of the eight street children gunned down by police death squads in 1993 as they slept outside Rio's Candelaria church — a notorious massacre that underscored the unequal treatment that outcasts often receive in Brazil. On the cross were the words "Candelaria Never Again" in Portuguese.
In a sign that they too were part of the World Youth Day events, each of the youngsters wore one of the official festival T-shirts.
Francis also had lunch with a dozen World Youth Day volunteers from around the globe, bringing them to tears when he asked them a simple rhetorical question on which to reflect: Why were they here having lunch with the pope while others were hungry in the slums?
The sun finally came out on Friday, ending four days of rain that soaked pilgrims and forced the relocation of the festival's culminating Mass on Sunday. Instead, the Mass and the Saturday night vigil that precedes it will take place at Copacabana beach rather than the mud pit covering the original site in Guaratiba, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of central Rio.
The improved weather also provided a brighter backdrop for his words to young and old during his noon prayer, in which he praised the elderly for passing on wisdom and religious heritage.
Francis has made a point of not just focusing on the next generation of Catholics during World Youth Day, but on the older generation as well. It's part of his longstanding work caring for the elderly in Argentina, the crucial role his own grandmother played in his spiritual development and the gentle deference he shows his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Speaking from the balcony of the residence of Rio's archbishop, Francis noted that Friday is celebrated as Grandparent's Day in much of the world and that young people should take the occasion to honor and thank their grandparents for the wisdom they share.
"How important grandparents are for family life, for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society!" he said.
Francis spoke about the important "bridge" between young and old in his brief remarks to journalists en route to Rio earlier in the week, saying young Catholics have the strength to move the church forward while older Catholics have the "wisdom of life" to share that shouldn't be discarded.
"This relationship and this dialogue between generations is treasure to be preserved and strengthened," he said Friday.
Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield, Marco Sibaja and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.
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