RIO DE JANEIRO – Pope Francis on Wednesday appealed to young people as the “powerful engine” that can strengthen the Roman Catholic Church and help build a better society that resists the “ephemeral idols” of money and power.
Traveling to a much-cherished shrine honoring a dark-skinned version of the Virgin Mary, Francis formally launched five days of events in Brazil celebrating the annual World Youth Day and marking the first overseas trip of the first pope from the Americas.
The Argentine-born pontiff sketched out themes that are likely to be the focus of the entire visit. These include what he called the deepest of Christian values, including generosity, solidarity and justice, and the path for reinvigorating the religion on a continent where it once dominated but today is under siege.
Francis flew to Aparecida (using a jet instead of the originally scheduled helicopter because of rainy weather), site of the shrine to Our Lady Who Appeared, patron saint of Brazil. He said Mass, greeted pilgrims, comforted the infirm, and lunched with seminarians and bishops at what he described as “the house of the mother of every Brazilian.”
Aparecida is one of the most important Catholic shrines in the world, visited by millions every year. It honors Mary, to whom Francis, like one of his predecessors, John Paul II, entrusted his papacy.
Local legend tells the Aparecida story this way: Brazilian fishermen who were suffering a dry spell in the early 1700s suddenly netted a statue of Mary. With that catch, a bounty of fish followed. Other miracles were later attributed to the icon, and eventually the site was officially declared a shrine.
Francis appeared visibly moved, first when he prayed before the icon and later when Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis, archbishop of Aparecida, presented him with a copy of the statue, which he cradled like a treasure, then used to bless members of the crowd that packed inside the Aparecida basilica.
“It is true that nowadays … everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure,” the pope said. “Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.”
But, he said, more traditional values must prevail.
“Let us encourage the generosity which is typical of the young and help them to work actively in building a better world,” he said. “Young people are a powerful engine for the church and for society.”
Wednesday night, the pope visited with a group of recovering addicts in a Rio de Janeiro hospital. He criticized the regional push to legalize drugs, saying society must instead tackle root causes of substance abuse such as the lack of education and justice.
Dressed in his simple white cassock, Francis greeted doctors, nuns, nurses and patients, some waiting in wheelchairs in a driving rain.
Vatican officials said the pope met with 10 recovering addicts from the so-called City of God favela, or slum, made famous in the 2002 movie of the same name, about boys growing up in the violent neighborhood. Today, Francis will venture into another favela, one so poor and dangerous that it is sometimes called the Gaza Strip.