But during the pontiff’s visit, which ends Sunday with a final Mass on the usually hedonistic Copacabana beach, the bawdy Rio of samba nightclubs and Carnival gave way to a different kind of festival. That would be the week-long annual World Youth Day, a gathering of young Catholics from around the globe who this year came to Brazil to renew their faith with Francis at the dawn of his papacy.
Think of it as Woodstock for Catholics, minus Jimi Hendrix, the free love and the marijuana.
“Show your love for Christ,” Francis exhorted, and they have, coming from nearly 180 countries to atone for sins and strengthen their bond with the Church. That they are doing it in Rio — a city world-famous for its wild and often drunken revelry, which has earned it the church’s censure over the years — at first might seem to be a contradiction.
But while Rio may be known for luring partygoers, it also has long attracted missionaries, preachers and all manner of Christian soldiers who know they’ll find folks in need of spiritual cleansing here — sinners of every stripe. The proof is in the elaborate evangelical churches in the city, among the world’s biggest, the myriad soapbox preachers and the strong presence of the Catholic Church.
“Biblically speaking, Christ always goes to the darkest places,” Carrillo said. “The way I see it, he’s reeling in people, in that sense.”
Many young Catholics said they came to focus on their faith, not Rio’s enticements. Camila Lara, 18, from Parana state in Brazil’s south, said she was especially drawn by the chance to show contrition, made easy here by the Catholic Church’s “we’ll come to you” strategy.
She asked for forgiveness, like many others, at Rio’s Quinta da Boa Vista Park, where priests and the pope listened to penitents in makeshift confessionals (Francis heard from three Brazilians, a Venezuelan and an Italian).
“Sincerely, for me, it was the best confession I ever had,” Lara said.
For the Rev. Antoine d’Eudeville, a priest from Paris who heard confessions in the park, it was an unusually gratifying experience. He had just heard the pope speak Friday night from an elaborate stage on the beach at Copacabana and was reflecting on a spirited week packed with religious events.
“For us priests, it’s a special time, because it’s not usual to have young people come to us asking for forgiveness,” d’Eudeville said. “Some people don’t go for years.”
Indeed, a recent poll on religious trends in Brazil showed that, among Catholics, 48 percent had not been to church even once in the last month, another blow for a church that once had a virtual lock on the Brazilian soul. Also sobering was the revelation that fewer than 45 percent of Brazilians between the ages of 16 and 24 identify themselves as Catholics.