RIO DE JANEIRO — Pope Francis wants to ignite the passion of Roman Catholics for their faith while on his first international trip, and the boisterous, sometimes frenzied welcome he got on his first day in Rio seemed to fill those hopes.
Returning to his home continent for the first time since becoming pontiff, Francis smiled broadly as thousands of people rushed his car Monday after it became stuck behind buses and taxis when his driver made a wrong turn on a main avenue in Rio’s center.
It was a nightmarish scene for security officials, but clearly a delight and another opportunity to connect for this pope, who was scheduled to take a day off today for rest and private meetings.
The ecstatic throngs forced his motorcade to repeatedly come to a standstill, weeks after violent protests against the government paralyzed 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 center 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 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, but the pope was happy,” said the papal spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The pope is here on a seven-day visit meant to fan the fervor of the faithful around the globe. That task has grown more challenging as Catholics stray, even in strongholds of the religion such as Brazil, yet it seemed to come easily to Francis even on the drive from the airport to an official opening ceremony.
After finally making it past crowds and blocked traffic, Francis switched to an open-air vehicle for a cruise along main streets past crowds 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.
As many as 1 million young people from around the world are expected in Rio for the Catholic youth fest, a seemingly tailor-made event for the Argentine-born pope, who has proven enormously popular in his four months on the job. But the fervor of the crowds that regularly greet Francis in St. Peter’s Square was nothing compared with the raucous welcome in Rio.
Popes generally get a warm welcome in Latin America; even the more aloof Pope Benedict XVI received a hero’s welcome when he visited Mexico and Cuba in 2012. John Paul II frequently received rock star treatment, and during one 1996 visit to Venezuela, his motorcade was similarly mobbed when he stopped to greet well-wishers.
Outside Rio’s 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 man as simple and humble 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 official welcoming ceremony. “I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ.”
PHOTO: Pope Francis waved from his popemobile Monday as he makes his way into central Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The pontiff arrived for a seven-day visit in Brazil, the world's most populous Roman Catholic nation. During his visit, Francis will meet with legions of young Roman Catholics converging on Rio for the church's World Youth Day festival. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)