POPE FRANCIS URGED Catholics to resist the “ephemeral idols” of money, power and pleasure in celebrating the first public Mass of his initial international foreign journey as pontiff during an emotional visit to one of the most important shrines in Latin America.
Thousands packed into the cavernous Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, tucked into an agricultural region of verdant fields halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo, and 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 him personally.
Before the Mass, Francis stood in silent prayer in front of the 15-inch-tall image of the Virgin of Aparecida, the “Black Mary,” his eyes tearing up as he breathed heavily.
It was a deeply personal moment for this pontiff, who has entrusted his papacy to the Virgin Mary and, like many Catholics in Latin America, places great importance in devotion to Mary.
During his homily, Francis urged Catholics to keep their values of faith, generosity and fraternity, a message he was expected to repeat later in the day during a visit to a drug rehabilitation center in Rio de Janeiro.
It is true that nowadays, to some extent, 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. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.
The church is struggling in Latin America to keep Catholics from straying to evangelical and Pentecostal churches that often promise help in finding material wealth, an alluring attraction in a poverty-wracked continent. Francis’ top priority as pope has been to reach out to the world’s poor and inspire Catholic leaders to go to slums and other peripheries to preach.
First foreign trip
It was no coincidence, then, that the first major event of his first foreign trip as pope was a Mass in Aparecida. The shrine, which draws 11 million pilgrims a year, hosted a critical 2007 meeting of Latin American bishops who, under the guidance of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, drafted a mission statement on how to reinvigorate the faith on the continent.
Unlike the scenes of chaos that greeted Francis upon his Monday arrival in Rio, when a mob of faithful swarmed his motorcade from the airport, the security situation in Aparecida was far more controlled.
Chest-high barriers kept the faithful far from his car. Soldiers in camouflage, emergency crews in raincoats and other uniformed security forces stood guard along his route while his bodyguards walked along the side of his vehicle.
Not all were pleased with the increased security.
“They put up a Berlin Wall between us and the pope and we couldn’t get anywhere near him. You could tell he wanted to get close to us but the police really insisted on this separation,” said Joao Franklin, a 51-year-old from Minas Gerais state.
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.