By Nicole Winfield
and Jenny Barchfield
RIO DE JANEIRO: Pope Francis made an emotional plea Wednesday for Roman Catholics to shun materialism in the first public Mass of his initial international trip as pontiff, then returned to Rio de Janeiro for a meeting with drug addicts heavy in symbolism.
The session was meant to drive home the message that the humble pope has repeatedly delivered during his short papacy: that the Catholic Church must focus on the poor, those who are suffering and the outcasts of society.
During his speech at the hospital, Francis was expected to stick with the theme of faith and sacrifice that he spoke about earlier Wednesday in his homily in Aparecida, a small town halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo that is home to one of the most important shrines in Latin America. The pontiff urged Catholics to resist the “ephemeral idols” of money, power and pleasure.
Thousands packed into the huge Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in an agricultural region of verdant fields.
Tens of thousands more braved a cold rain outside to catch a glimpse of the first pope from the Americas returning to a shrine of great meaning to the continent and to Francis.
Before the Mass, Francis stood in silent prayer in front of the 15-inch statue of the Virgin of Aparecida, the “Black Mary,” his eyes tearing up as he breathed heavily. He later carried it in his arms. Francis has entrusted his papacy to the Virgin Mary and, like many Catholics in Latin America, places great importance in devotion to Mary.
After his Mass, the pope blessed the tens of thousands gathered outside the basilica and announced that he would return to Aparecida in 2017, the year that marks the 300th anniversary of a fisherman finding the Black Mary statue in a nearby river.
Later in Rio, Francis arrived outside the simple white and yellow hospital in a closed car under a cold rain, and bounded out of his vehicle not bothering to wait for an umbrella.
He entered a small chapel where a group of young Franciscan friars waited excitedly, then headed back out into the rain to greet a group of people in wheelchairs.
The pope smiled widely and spoke in an animated manner with each person in the group, while a crowd held back by metal barriers nearby snapped photos and reached out to touch the pontiff, who returned the reach and grabbed hands and arms.
Before the pope spoke, former drug addicts stood up and told their stories as the pontiff looked on seated just yards away. After the first former addict spoke, his voice full of nerves and emotion, Francis stood, crossed the gap between them and embraced the man, patting him on the back of his head with his right hand, and accepted a hand-made card from the man.
A second addict who stood up thanked all the hospital workers and after he spoke walked over to the pope and shared a long embrace. The man, sobbing, kissed the pope’s right hand. A rosary dangled in the former addict’s left hand.
Francis is in Brazil for World Youth Day, a church event that brings together young Catholics from around the world roughly every three years.
Approximately 350,000 young pilgrims signed up to officially take part in the Youth Day events.