RIO DE JANEIRO - Pope Francis wrapped up his first overseas trip Sunday with one of the largest papal Masses in recent history and a final entreaty for Catholic youth and their ministers to get out and spread the faith.
The pope’s flight to Rome took off from the Rio de Janeiro airport about 7:35 p.m. local time after a brief departure ceremony.
Vatican officials said they were pleased with the Brazil trip, which took the first pope from the Americas back to his native continent. Throughout the nearly weeklong pilgrimage, the Argentine-born Francis drew large, enthusiastic crowds, some of which mobbed his popemobile on several occasions. He met with young prisoners, drug addicts and slum-dwellers, along with presidents, cardinals and Brazil’s elite.
“Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent,” Francis told the estimated 3 million people who filled the powdery white sands of the crescent-shaped Copacabana beach for Mass on Sunday morning.
“There are no borders, no limits: He sends us to everyone.”
With a goal of revitalizing the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, Francis needed success on this trip to strengthen his hand as he returns to a troubled Vatican, which he is determined to reform. Whether he changed the minds of many Brazilians, however, remains to be seen in this country that is less Catholic every day.
In the favela, or slum, that served as a centerpiece of Francis’s pilgrimage to Brazil, there was little sign Sunday that he’d ever been there.
The St. Jeronimo Emiliano church where the pope prayed Thursday in the Varginha favela was chained shut. Crowds, meanwhile, were gathering for Sunday services at the Rosa de Saron Evangelical church. A plastic sign outside the local soccer club served as a lone reminder of the papal visit.
Not that the people had forgotten. They just hoped for more.
“For the whole week, no one here could talk about anything but the pope’s visit,” said Rafael Ribeiro Marques, a 27-year-old resident who works in a hospital office. “And it meant improvements in our trash system, our street lights ... but the people that live here are in dire need of more improvements.”
Back in Copacabana, however, young people, many of whom had traveled from all five continents to attend the week’s activities, were basking in the pope’s glow, as well as a rare day of winter sunshine following much rainy weather.
Emiliano Ugolini, a 27-year-old student who traveled by bus for 54 hours to reach Rio from his home in Buenos Aires, was among those commenting on the pope’s urging that young Catholics “create a mess” to arouse the church from complacency.
“What he meant was to shake things up,” Ugolini said on the beach, where he had planted an Argentine flag. “The church has been asleep.”
Lidia Koval-Smith of Poland compared Francis to the late Pope John Paul II, both men crucial to their time. As one of John Paul’s missions was to deliver his native Poland from Communism, so Francis will uplift Latin America’s poor and helpless, she said.
“It is God’s plan,” said the 27-year-old graduate in architecture who has to work in Germany as a baby-sitter because of high unemployment in Poland. “John Paul gave us power, and so will Francis.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff joined her counterparts from Argentina and Bolivia at Sunday morning’s Copacabana Mass. But she was not present in the departure ceremony for reasons that were not immediately clear. The pope’s prepared text released ahead of the ceremony included comments thanking her. Francis changed that portion when he actually gave the speech, addressing instead Vice President Michel Temer, who oversaw the farewell.
A spokesman earlier said Rousseff had been “stressed” by the considerable logistical problems connected to the trip, including a failure of public transportation that stranded tens of thousands of pilgrims.