It is Saturday evening in downtown Copacabana and as I start writing this blog entry, it just after 6.00pm local time. It would be great if I could post this live, but try as I might, I can't jag a local wifi connection anywhere here, so it will have to wait until I get back to the hotel tomorrow, whatever time the will be.
I am not actually not on the beach itself but sitting against the fence of what I think is a luxury hotel (too crowded to see a sign anywhere) about 40 metres or so from the Copacabana sand. I am separated from the beach by two rows of interlocked metal barricades, about 4 metres apart that the run the full 4 kilometre length of the beach, and then some more. As I have mentioned in previous entries this has been the arrangement for the other papal events held here in Copa, as this is the designated route the the Holy Father takes in his papal motorcade - from Ipenema (or 'Ipi' as we locals call it) to the stage at the city-end of the beach where tonight he will lead the Vigil, one of the key events at World Youth Day.
Only last night, the Vigil was changed from a large field adjacent to the airport to Copacabana Beach. The week of drizzling rain has left the ground at the airport sodden so the choice was made to come back here for the final two events - the Vigil and the Final Mass the next morning. At the end of the Vigil, the tradition is for people sleep out under the stars with the Final Mass celebrated by the Holy Father at 10.00am the next day (Sunday). Everyone seems pretty pleased with this decision. We all reckoned the beach would be much more comfortable venue for a sleep than a drenched paddock adjacent to an airport. Copa gets my vote.
I have been down here for a few hours now. I spent most of the day writing and uploading photos onto the backroadsofrio blog. I was able to get some camera cards from the students and teachers in different bus groups, so I downloaded them and put them up under the Bus tabs on the blog homepage. I hope you get some time to have a look at them. All our pilgrims headed here after Mass at Aussie Central this morning so I am hoping that they have found a position on the beach and are well set up. As I mentioned, after the Vigil tonight is the world's biggest sleepover. Now that I think of it, a 4 kilometre stretch of sand actually might not be enough to fit everyone. To give weight to this, pilgrim groups have already set up camp shop-side of the barricade and it does not look like they are going anywhere for the moment.
I really have no idea how to accurately describe this scene to you. I am about midway along the beach so I really can't tell how many other people there are located along the length and breadth of Copacabana but the area where I am sitting is completely filled by other seated pilgrims. The areas closer to the stage are fuller still. When I look toward Ipanema in the sallow light, all I can see are waves of people walking purposefully but lightly, almost all carrying yellow and blue backpacks, some waving national flags or banners identifying their religious or cultural group, or community that they are a part of. Some are singing or chanting. A few have instruments. Many are wearing the ubiquitous yellow and white WYD cap. Many are carrying backpacks and boxes of food supplies - their meal provisions for tonight and tomorrow.
I will just break here because the Pope is passing........now.
That took about 40 seconds from the time I heard the first cheer. I can't see anything at all seated here but now that the procession has passed I will venture out to see if I can get through the barricade and find our crew on the beach. That might be optimistic thinking on my part but here goes.
It is almost two hours since I last wrote. While the papal motorcade passed quickly, it was still another 20 minutes or more before the barricades were opened and people allowed to pass from one side to the other. Like other nights, that operation was done with absolutely no order or logic which didn't help things but oddly enough it seems as if that is exactly how people expected to would be done and everyone waited patiently to cross over or stayed calm while others at different points got through while they didn't.
This is an ocean of humanity. Everywhere you look or move, there are people, walking, standing still, sitting or even lying down having set up a base in the middle of the sidewalk or in some cases, in the middle of the road. When I say everywhere, I literally mean everywhere! I eventually got across to the beach side, only to find that almost every metre of sand from the shoreline to the pavement had been taken with pilgrims who have set up their sleepout site for the night. Some very large groups have staked out their area with small string or tape connected to low-rise stakes or tied to existing structures like trees, lifesaver towers, the soccer posts or even the supports of the large screens. Some have even built small sand walls around their area which have to be continually rebuilt when people walk over them. There is not a spare patch of sand that I can see anywhere.
With literally thousands of others who, like me, have been waiting on the other side of the barricades to get across, I find a narrow path onto the sand in the hope finding our three hundred pilgrims who should have had arrived here sometime around midday. I roughly knew which part of the beach they were heading for but it was becoming increasingly clear that it would be no easy task to locate them.
And so it turned out. I could not see them anywhere in the area I expected to find them and my mobile phone wasn't working - perhaps the network has melted down with the volume of traffic. Worse, I simply could not walk around to look for them as there was nowhere to walk!
I have been in big crowds before but nothing like this. It is just incredible. I would only be guessing but it must be in the millions. It is hard not be overwhelmed by a crowd of this size, and yet I have not seen a single moment of conflict. If people are unable to get where they were hoping to go, then they change course, and go somewhere else. There appears to be no pushing or shoving and no sense of danger. The presence of a small anti-church protest group walking and chanting through the crowd later in the night could not even upset the mood. "God loves you too," I hear someone call out.
Eventually, I found a table at a roadside cafe that had a view of one of the large screens and watched the vigil service from there. I would have preferred to be on the sand with the others, wherever that is but this would have to do. As has been the case on other occasions, the ceremony was delivered in Portuguese (or Spanish) so I could understand little of it. The Holy Father's address received repeated rounds of applause from the crowd. I understand all his speeches are available on the WYD or the Vatican website.If I can get a copy, I will put them up on the blog. Sitting here has given me a chance have somewhere to write, so that has been a plus.
The ceremony is now finished and not everyone has planned to stay the might on the sand or the pavement. The crowd is thinning (it is probably already down to a couple of mill...) so I am going to give it one more try to find my fellow pilgrims. I don't think the waiter here is going to allow me to stay too much longer anyway just drinking espresso coffees and bashing away on my iPad. I think he knows what I am up to.
It has been another incredible night on an ongoing journey although it has not turned out the way I has planned. In an odd way, I found tonight quite a spiritual experience. I did not see the Holy Father motor past and did not have my camera out to snap what would have been a useless photo. I just listened to the crowd cheer him as he approached and said a quiet prayer as he passed. That felt nice.
There is something humbling about being just one unaccompanied person in a crowd of millions. I was reminded of my own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Tonight I watched waves of people move in and around me and felt a common bond with them. A pretty large part of the universal Church was with me in Copacabana tonight. I don't know them personally but it didn't matter. We're on the same team. And better still, the Holy Father, the Captain of the Team, was here too. I hope our young pilgrims understand how special it is to be here tonight and this week.
PS I didn't find them in the end...
PPS The news the next day reported the crowd as between 3 and 4 million.
Here's a few pics of the crowd but but none of them capture the sheer size of the gathering. I could not get up high anywhere to take an overhead shot. Even trees were occupied, and as you can see, it was dark! There are also a few pics of the Mass at Aussie Central with Father Daniel.