The cancellation of a scheduled popemobile ride through a working-class neighborhood suggests that, despite official assurances, Pope Francis' chaotic entrance into the city on July 22 may have raised concerns among those responsible for his safety during his first international trip as pope. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters on July 23 that the pope would not be taking a ride in his open popemobile planned for July 24 in the northern Rio neighborhood of Tijuca. Instead, the spokesman said, the pope's ride to his visit to the Hospital of St. Francis of Assisi would be in a closed vehicle.
Father Lombardi said the decision did not reflect security concerns, but was merely an effort to avoid the "confusion" of July 22, when Pope Francis used three means of transportation—closed car, open popemobile and helicopter—to travel from Rio's international airport to a meeting with government officials. The spokesman noted that most of the popemobile rides scheduled for the remainder of the week were still expected to take place. The pope did take one such ride early on July 24, on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida.
Father Lombardi said Vatican and Brazilian officials met July 23 to discuss logistics for the remainder of the papal visit. He said the meeting did not reflect any heightened safety concerns in the wake of the pope's ride into Rio July 22, when his Fiat Idea compact van was repeatedly stopped by surging crowds and rush-hour traffic. Father Lombardi told reporters that the number of security officers assigned to walk alongside the popemobile had not been increased in the aftermath of the arrival events. Asked if officials had replaced the driver who had taken pope's car out of a specially cleared lane and into ordinary traffic July 22, Father Lombardi did not reply directly, saying only that a Brazilian driver would be preferable to a Vatican employee behind the wheel for the pope's stay in Rio.
The Vatican has sought to downplay any concerns about the pope's security during his visit here, which ends on July 28. Meeting with reporters a few hours after Pope Francis' arrival in the city, Father Lombardi said the pope had not been alarmed by the crowds that engulfed his car, but had appreciated their enthusiasm. "The pope wants direct contact with the people," Father Lombardi said, "not a militarization of the situation."
Brazilian authorities planned to deploy more than 28,000 police officers for the week of events connected to the papal visit and World Youth Day. Experts quoted in the Brazilian media have warned that Pope Francis was exposed to unnecessary risks during his first hours in Rio.
On his ride through downtown in the open popemobile, the pope "was in a vulnerable position and could have been the victim of an attack from a very short distance, but also could have been injured by a reckless member of the faithful trying to touch him," a reserve officer of Brazil's military police told the Rio daily O Globo.
Pope Francis' visit followed weeks of sometimes violent anti-government protests in Brazilian cities. On the evening of July 22, some 1,500 demonstrators clashed with police outside Rio's Guanabara Palace, where the pope was meeting with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and other dignitaries. Father Lombardi said Brazilian officials made the decision to transport the pope by helicopter from downtown to the palace to avoid the demonstrators.
But Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, a Vatican official who accompanied the pope on his visit to Rio, said that the protests were not a cause for concern.
"I see no problem of insecurity," the cardinal told O Globo. "I see it rather as a positive phenomenon."
The apparent chaos that resulted as the pope's compact car was engulfed by World Youth Day pilgrims was just a sample of the enthusiasm generated by the event since it officially opened yesterday.
The mosaic of hundreds of national flags waving in the cold wind on Copacabana beach was symbolic, as pilgrims from all backgrounds, driven by a single faith, participated in the opening Mass for World Youth Day.
"We come from different cultures, speak different languages, but we sing the same songs and have the same faith," said Nancy Issa of Ramallah, West Bank. Issa was among a party of 20 other Palestinians in Brazil for the July 23-28 events.
Rio Archbishop Orani Joao Tempesta officially opened World Youth Day with the evening Mass. "This week Rio becomes the center of the church, alive and young," he said. "These youths' enthusiasm show the face of the young Catholics. ... I celebrate for all those who believe that a new world is possible."
Police said more than 400,000 pilgrims braved the rain to gather on the beach. Some reacted with joy and tears when young people made their way up on the main stage carrying the Pilgrim's Cross.
"Emotions are very high," said Jose Leonardo Chacin, 27, an accountant from Maracaibo, Venezuela. "Especially since the pope is Latin American."
At the beginning of his speech, Archbishop Tempesta remembered retired Pope Benedict XVI, responsible for choosing the city to host World Youth Day 2013. He later highlighted the importance of this first foreign trip by Pope Francis. "This World Youth Day was destined to be ... the first apostolic trip of the first Latin American pope in history," said the archbishop.
In the crowd, thousands of Argentines cheered. Nearby, a small group of Canadians were ecstatic with the whole celebration. "This is so great. The enthusiasm, the passion, it is all incredible," said J.P. Martelino, 18, of St. Patrick Parish in Vancouver, British Columbia. When asked what he would take from the week, Martelino replied, "Definitely the energy. ... I will take that to Canada with me and try to reproduce it so it may attract more young people to church."
After the Mass, the rain started to pick up, and slowly the pilgrims headed home. Tired and cold, many still smiled, telling reporters that this had been a great first day. "I believe that World Youth Day is similar to going to Mecca for Muslims," said Chacin. "Every Catholic, no matter what age, should do it at least once in his or her lifetime."