A reported three million people jammed Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach Sunday to get a glimpse of Pope Francis as he brought a whirlwind trip to his home continent to a close with a Mass, during which he called on young people participating in World Youth Day to extend their Catholic faith “to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent.”
“The church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you,” Pope Francis said to the massive crowd, one of the largest turnouts for a papal Mass in recent history, according to The Associated Press.
“Where does Jesus send us?” the pontiff asked the audience. “There are no borders, no limits: he sends us to everyone. The Gospel is for everyone, not just for some. It is not only for those who seem closer to us, more receptive, more welcoming. It is for everyone.”
The celebration of the Mass marked the climax of his week-long trip to the capital of Brazil and neighboring Sao Paulo, where legions of fans and the faithful celebrated a pope who has quickly gained in popular appeal. It also crowned World Youth Day, a biannual gathering of young Catholics.
Over the course of Francis' visit — his first foreign tour since he was elected March 13 — the pontiff presented a broad sketch of his key papal priorities: charity for the poor, bringing priests closer to the people, and re-evangelizing regions where Catholics have left the church — particularly Latin America, where the Catholic population has dramatically shrunk.
"I would like Christ's command — 'Go' — to resonate in you young people from the church in Latin America, engaged in the continental mission promoted by the bishops," Francis said in his homily Sunday. "Brazil, Latin America, the whole world needs Christ!"
Many of the pilgrims who packed Copacabana beach early Sunday slept overnight to secure a spot at Mass, some pitching tents and camping out in sleeping bags. Normally a sea of bikinis and swimsuits, the world-famous beach was, instead, crammed with Bibles, rosaries and crucifixes as worshipers convened to hear Francis.
“We were dying of cold but it was worth it,” Lucrecia Grillera, 18, told the AP. “It was a tiring day, but it was a great experience.”
The Vatican said that over 3 million people flooded the beach for closing Mass, based on data provided by World Youth Day organizers and local authorities, eclipsing the one million people at 2011 ceremony in Madrid and the 850,000 on hand for the 2002 ceremony in Toronto, according to the AP.
And yet the Rio crowd fell short of the estimated 5 million people who swarmed Pope John Paul II’s 1995 closing Mass in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, according to the AP.
Francis announced Sunday that the next World Youth Day would be in Krakow, Poland in 2016.
En route to the beach, Francis received a welcome befitting a rock star, as admirers flung well-wishes, kisses and gifts at the pontiff as he rode to the service in an open-sided car. Straight-laced Vatican bodyguards smiled as they moved along the pope’s vehicle, swept up in the ecstatic energy surrounding the convoy, according to the AP.
It was Francis’ second day addressing a massive audience on the beach. He spoke on Saturday to a crowd estimated by the Vatican to have climbed above 2 million people.
In his speech, he encouraged Brazil's young people, who have protested against corruption in their country, to continue their efforts to change society by fighting apathy and offering "a Christian response."
He received yet another rapturous reception, stopping his popemobile several times to kiss babies.
On Thursday, Pope Francis underlined his mission to lead a “church for the poor” Thursday, preaching against “selfishness and individualism” in an address to a rain-soaked Rio slum.
He was cheered by residents of the Varginha favela who hung out of windows and stood on rooftops just to get a glimpse he gave his address from a vast, muddy soccer field.
Dignitaries including Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer were on hand at Rio's Antonio Carlos Jobim international airport to say goodbye to Francis on Sunday afternoon, according to the AP.
In his farewell remarks at the airport, the pope thanked the people of Brazil for "showing so much affection and friendship."
"I shall miss the natural and warm smiles I have seen in so many faces, and the enthusiasm shown by the volunteers," he said.
"I know that Christ is truly present in the lives of countless young people and in the lives of many whom I have met during this unforgettable week."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.