Catholic youths converge on Rio to see 'slum pope'

Posted: July 20, 2013 at 10:33 a.m.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Thousands of young Catholics are traveling to Rio de Janeiro to see Pope Francis, taking long bus trips or expensive plane flights paid for with bake sales, raffles and fundraisers in public plazas.

Thanks to donations, the 30,000 Argentine pilgrims include hundreds from so-called "misery villages" in Buenos Aires, where Jorge Mario Bergoglio fostered close ties with kids in the slums before he became pope. They began leaving Friday, and will meet kids in a Brazilian favela to share stories about the Jesuit leader they affectionately call their "slum pope."

Many say they're excited by the changes they see in the church, and in themselves. They say Francis's first moves have renewed their faith, and that joining as many as a million other like-minded young people can only strengthen it.

"Like anyone else, there have been times when I haven't had this faith at 100 percent. Now I have more faith than ever, very high. I have my heart completely with God and no one can take me away from there," said Valentina Godoy, who traveled from Santiago, Chile, and shared her feelings from Brazil on a video her local church group posted on YouTube.

Francis joked when he first emerged on the balcony over St. Peters Square that the cardinals had chosen a pope "from the end of the world." But for many Catholics on this side of the Atlantic, he's not only the first Latin American pope. With his history of community outreach, many younger Catholics are saying that he's the first pope they can relate to in a more personal way.

"We were concerned after Benedict resigned, but when a Latin American pope emerged, so close to young people, it really changed the situation and our numbers grew. A little while ago we thought that there would be 5,000 Chileans and now we see that 9,100 of us are going, more than double what we expected," said Alonso Molina, the 21-year-old coordinator of a group visiting from Chile's Vicarate of Youthful Hope.

Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world and its church has struggled to compete with Latin America's vigorous evangelical Christian movements, so it's a logical destination. And while many Argentines were disappointed that Francis didn't choose his native Argentina for his first papal trip outside Italy, they were making the best of it: More than 30,000 Argentines were making the pilgrimage, the largest foreign delegation.