RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics packed Copacabana beach for the start of a weeklong religious event in Rio de Janeiro despite a breakdown in the city’s metro system which forced throngs of pilgrims to cram into buses, find taxis or walk.
Despite the traffic trouble and some rain drops, the Vatican said 560,000 pilgrims from around the world made it to the beach, singing, waving flags and praying as Rio Archbishop Orani Tempesta led a mass to kick off World Youth Day in the country with the world’s greatest number of Roman Catholics.
Pope Francis, was taking the day off one day after a rapturous welcome through the streets of the tropical city, but he sent greetings to his flock via Twitter.
“Dear young friends, Christ has confidence in you and he entrusts his own mission to you: Go and make disciples!” he tweeted.
“The organization was a bit messy, but we’re figuring things out little by little,” said Fernando Cila, a 22-year-old from Buenos Aires, the pope’s home city.
The first pope from Latin America will travel to the Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida in neighboring Sao Paulo state on Wednesday and then lead a mass on Copacabana on Thursday.
The city’s two subway lines were down for two hours after a power cable broke, a Rio Metro statement said.
The underground system was the main way for people to get from downtown to the beach, where tens of thousands were gathering for a mass to be led by the archbishop of Rio.
The metro breakdown came as local authorities grappled with security lapses during the pope’s arrival on Monday, when crowds were able to approach his car and touch the 76-year-old Argentine pontiff despite massive security.
Rio’s organization of World Youth Day and the visit of Pope Francis are seen as a test for its ability to host World Cup games next year and the Olympic Games in 2016.
Last month’s Confederations Cup, an international soccer tournament seen as a dry run for the World Cup, was marked by massive protests over the country’s poor public services, corruption and the billions spent on hosting sporting events.
Despite the metro’s stoppage, people remained upbeat near a downtown station, with many singing and smiling as they looked for alternative ways to the beach. Some chanted “This is the pope’s youth!”
Local radio, however, said police had to block a group of angry passengers from trying to rush into the Botafogo Metro station. At another station, commuters demanded explanations from metro employees.
“We’ll walk,” said Henry Lobo, a 29-year-old Venezuelan in town with pilgrims from Caracas. “We don’t have another choice.”
Italian priests Andre and Silvano waited at the corner of a boulevard hoping to hail a cab.
“We tried the bus and now we’re trying taxis, but it’s impossible,” said Father Andre, 31.
Some 1.5 million people from 170 nations are expected to be in Rio for the week-long event.
The pope was taking the day off on Tuesday, but he will resume his hectic schedule on Wednesday with a visit to a shrine in Sao Paulo state followed by more contact with big crowds on Copacabana on Thursday and Friday.
Francis sent a Twitter message to the faithful before World Youth Day, saying: “Dear young friends, Christ has confidence in you and he entrusts his own mission to you: Go and make disciples.”
Earlier, he sent another tweet to thank his flock and “all the authorities for a magnificent welcome in Rio.”
But Brazilian media highlighted the security “failure” during the pope’s drive through the city. Pilgrims were able to stop his car and touch the pope through the open window.
A Rio municipal official said the driver made a wrong turn, keeping the car stuck in traffic for several hours. A federal official handling major events in Brazil said the pope himself had asked the driver to slow down.
The pope himself appeared upbeat and even kept his window down to salute the crowd while his security detail struggled to keep people away.
“It was a first experience. We saw the enthusiasm of the crowd. It is something new, maybe a lesson for the coming days,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. “We have to find the correct way.”
The pope’s trip comes after last month’s massive nationwide street protests, which often ended in violence.
On Monday, police used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who protested against the $53 million spent on the papal visit.
A policeman said they charged at rioters who threw firebombs. Five people were detained and an AFP photographer required three stitches after he was clubbed on the head by police.
The military had earlier disclosed that troops found and destroyed a homemade explosive device in the bathroom of a parking lot at the sanctuary that the pope will visit in Aparecida on Wednesday.
Photo Credit: AFP/Gabriel Bouys