RIO DE JANEIRO // Brazil's famed Copacabana beach, usually the venue for scantily clad sun-seekers and revelry, became a massive Catholic campground yesterday as Pope Francis concluded a youth festival by urging young people to go forth and build a new world.
A festive crowd estimated by organisers and the Vatican to be more than three million people, including many who slept in the area, turned out to see the Argentine pope on the final day of his week-long trip.
The sand and pavements were blanketed with people for several kilometres along the crescent-shaped shoreline.
The throng of people, many in the green and yellow Brazilian colours, gave Francis the kind of ecstatic welcome that he has received throughout his trip to his home continent. They shouted and sang as he was driven through the crowd, stopping often to kiss babies on the shoreline most famous for its bars and nightclubs and hedonist spirit.
His message to the young people in Rio for week-long World Youth Day festivities, sometimes called "the Church's Woodstock", was serious: they should not make their time in Rio a one-off experience.
In his sermon during the Mass from a huge white stage at the beach's northern tip, he said they should return to their home countries energised and ready to work for social change.
"The church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you," he said to applause.
The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff; the Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez; the Bolivian president, Evo Morales; and several Latin American vice presidents were among those who attended.
The Copacabana events were to have taken place on a pasture on the outskirts of Rio, but days of unseasonable rain turned the area into a field of mud.
Pope Francis, who was due to leave for Rome last night after addressing Latin American bishops, has dedicated much attention in his speeches to the problems, the prospects and the power of youth. He announced that the next World Youth Day will be in Krakow, Poland in 2016.
On Saturday night, 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".
Brazil, Latin America's largest nation and still the world's most Catholic country despite declining numbers of faithful, has been rocked by protests against corruption, the misuse of public money and the high cost of living.
* Reuters, with additional reporting from Associated Press