Pope Francis enthralls his young fans: ‘I hope he hugs me!’

Youths take the cross during the re-enactment of the 14 Stations of the Cross -- scenes of Jesus carrying the cross to his crucifixion -- with the participation of Pope Francis, in Rio de Janeiro, on July 26. Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Thousands of people flooded Rio’s lush Copacabana beach on Friday for one of the most solemn ceremonies of the Catholic faith, a procession depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

But, in keeping with the unlikely setting, the Way of the Cross procession came with a theatrical, florid twist.

With Pope Francis presiding, the event boasted massive stage sets, intricate lighting, a full orchestra and a cast of hundreds of performers straight out of a Broadway production. Francis watched in silence as the enthusiastic participants re-enacted the Biblical story.

The Way of the Cross is one of the centerpiece events of World Youth Day — and Francis was one of the main attractions.

An estimated one million young pilgrims from 180 countries had packed the iconic beach for Francis’ welcoming rally and mass on Thursday, turning World Youth Day into a carnival of faith.

They braved the rain and cold, coming from all corners of the earth, to meet the man they say strengthened their faith and gave them hope for a better future.

The army of young people packed Rio’s Avenida Atlantica, Copacabana’s ocean drive, waving flags from all over the world and shouting chants of “Viva o Papa.”

They are the new “missionaries” for the 76-year-old Argentine pontiff who wants them to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” the theme of this year’s World Youth Day. A call many of them have taken seriously.

“I am here with a group from New York,” Eva Garrea, a New Yorker of Peruvian descent said on the beach Thursday. “We are all from different cultures and backgrounds, and yet we are united in our faith. This is a message we can bring to everybody.”

Organizers say more than 400,000 pilgrims and volunteers registered to attend the World Youth Day events, but the estimates of actual crowd numbers at his big events are much higher. In addition, there are also 15,000 priests – and 6,000 journalists to cover all the excitement.

Hundreds of young Catholics from all over the United States watched the pope’s ceremony from the wet sand, waving American flags and joining in chants of “Bienvenido,” Portuguese for “Welcome.”

Mark Jones, a 20-year-old from Florida, reveled in the atmosphere of solidarity among the catholic youth in Rio. “I think this pope is absolutely what we need right now, it’s a beautiful example of the simplicity and truth that’s present in the Catholic faith,” he said. “I could not have hoped for a better pope.”

Millions expected to attend Pope's final mass in Brazil 2:44

Aside from being a celebration of faith, World Youth Day is a jamboree for young people, a weeklong festival of prayers and colorful events. No wonder it has often been called the “Catholic Woodstock.”

Carlos Zone, from Naples, Fla., traveled to Rio with family and friends. “It doesn’t get better than this, being here together. And on top of it: The pope is here!” he laughed. “I hope he hugs me! Or a member of my family. I’d love that!”

Zone’s wish is not so far-fetched. Since his election in March, Pope Francis brought back a hands-on and personable approach to the faithful that has not been seen since the heyday of Pope John Paul II, to the point that he’s earned the nickname of the “People’s Pope.”

“We are all fans of the pope, we love Pope Francis!” Robert Duarte, a 26-year-old man from Los Angeles, said. “He is a pope for all people, both rich and poor, everyone.”

The wave of people from all over the world that flooded the beach of Copacabana, joining hands, sharing chants and dancing on the sand long after the pope left the party, proved Duarte right.

Groups of Catholics carried their national flags like diplomats on a foreign mission. Young pilgrims descended to Rio all the way from Italy, Norway, St. Lucia and even China.

“I took a 28 hours flight to get here, but it’s worth it,” said Fu Jawen, a 29-year-old from Shanghai.

Miriam Manzaes, a young woman from Barcelona, said seeing the pope “was amazing.” Adding, “I can't explain it with words…I was almost crying.”

And an estimated 30,000 young people from Francis’ native Argentina joined the crowd, too. The pope even added a last-minute visit with them to his already busy schedule at Rio’s cathedral on Thursday.

Fiorenzia de Mattei, a 23-year-old from Buenos Aires, feels a connection to his fellow Argentine. “We are friendly, cheerful, happy, we show that, and the pope is one of us, like us. That’s the greatest thing about Francis: He is one of the people.”

On a stall nearby, merchandising and souvenirs were selling out fast. Among them, a T-shirt said: “Keep Calm and Make Disciples.” What was meant to be an ironic slogan could well become the real theme of this year’s World Youth Day.

People watch a video screen as Pope Francis celebrates Mass on Copacabana Beach on Thursday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More than 1.5 million pilgrims are expected to join the pontiff for his visit to the Catholic Church's World Youth Day celebrations. Mario Tama / Getty Images

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