Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Papal Welcome

As busy as things have been over the last few days, they are about to get busier still. The big ticket item on yesterday's agenda was the official WYD welcome of Pope Francis, the man affectionately  known here as 'Papa Francisco'. He has actually been in Rio for a couple of days now but tonight he was officially presented to the more than 1 million people gathered on the famous Copacabana sand.

I mentioned in my post a few days back on the Opening Mass that first estimates of that crowd were around 1 million but that was later revised down to around a mere 600,000 or so. What difference does a few hundred thousand make, you might ask? Plenty, let me tell you! What an experience.

The event was scheduled to commence at around 6pm. That morning, the students had attended a catechises session at a place called Saida City and Mass followed. Because of the large number of students we have in Rio, each bus group (there is about 30 or so students in each bus group) is pretty autonomous. It is logistically impossible to travel around together in a mass single group. Sometimes the bus groups themselves are too big to safely cross roads or get onto and off busy buses or trains, so they are spilt again, often into four or five smaller groups, usually arranged by school. Sometimes you don't see other bus groups at all until back at Aussie Central or before heading off for the day's activities.

After catechises, each group made individual plans to travel to Copacabana. for the Papal Welcome, For reasons I suspect I known only to the Rio WYD Organizing Committee, the train travel cards that had been valid for the first two days of travel were not valid for the last three days of the week, so if we wanted to catch a train to Copa, as we did for the Opening Mass, we had to buy separate travel cards, and the selling of those cards only commenced  early this week and at one venue that we only open for a couple of hours each day.  To quote my friend Forrest Gump again "I am not a smart man" so someone  more clever than me will have to explain that logic to me at another time. So, all of the groups decided to give the Rio bus network a crack.

Rio De Janeiro is a vast, sprawling, pulsating metropolis that fans out in all directions (other than over the water). It is crowded, lively and multicultural, and my experience so far is that it is a very friendly place. Australians appear to be particularly popular here. We share a similar climate and this is also a sport -loving nation (The Olympic Games and the Football World Cup are being held he in the years ahead). Its Portuguese colonial past has left an indelible mark on the architecture of the city, but like Lima and I guess other cities that have been subject to the influence of a colonial power and have later gained independence (Rio gained its independence in 1822), Rio has become a mishmash of many influences and cultures that give the city its unique identity.

The biggest obstacle for us here is the language barrier. Few Rio locals speak any English at all. I am not someone who has travelled widely to other countries but I have been very clearly struck on his trip by the power that comes with an understanding of language. On a number of occasions, I have been unable to make clear what I needed (and some of those situations we very  important ones) simply because I was not able to get across my message. It is a sobering reminder of what recent arrivals to our own country - particularly refugees - have to deal with when they  are trying to rebuild their lives in a county where not only the language is foreign to them but so is everything else.

There are buses scurrying off in every direction in Rio. They all have their destination and their number prominently displayed but that is all pretty useless unless you know where those places are. There are no roadside officials to help out. The best you can do is take your map of the city with you and try to work out which bus might go where in the hope that you might get somewhere close to where you needed to be.

So yesterday, each bus group made their own way back to Copacabana via a different bus route. I travelled alone as I had been writing that morning and had also been checking out whether the subway might be option, (which of course it wasn't, as I explained earlier). All I knew about getting to Copacabana Beach by bus was roughly where the bus might leave from.

A few buses heading to Copa rolled past but they we all jammed packed with pilgrims (you can easily identify WYD pilgrims by their distinctive yellow or blue backpacks or their group caps). It did not look like I was going to get on onto one of those buses (they weren't even stopping) so I jumped on one that had a few pilgrims on it that was going to a place called Leblon.

While the train swipe ads no longer worked, the bus ones did. It's a weird set up. When you get on the bus, you place your card over the card reader and once that registers that your card is valid, you pass through a turnstile, not unlike the ones you would pass through to go into the local swimming pool or football ground in the 1970s (for those of us who were around in the 1970s). Once you are through the turnstile, you can't get off at the front, you have to get off through doors in the middle of the bus or at the back. 

All was going well until our bus turned away from where other buses were travelling and headed in a direction where there were few pilgrims walking the streets. That was not a good sign. The pilgrims on my bus seemed unperturbed so I thought I would just wait to see where it all led to. 

Oddly enough, it actually worked out very well. The bus's final stop, Leblon is a beautiful beach (I would say even more beautiful but smaller than Copa) about 4 or 5ks from Copa. The road to Copa was signposted and other buses were heading into there form Leblon, and I was able to get myself onto one. It dropped us off at Ipanema (I think there are enough songs about Rio to make 'Rio the Musical') and not far from there is the start of Copacabana Beach,

I got to Copa at around 3.30pm but already, the whole 4km stench of promenade that runs along Copacabana Beach was lined with people - this was the route that Pope Francis would take in his 'Popemobile' en route to the stage at the other end of the beach. It was still hours before his arrival, but there was not a single spot near the barricades that was not filled by people. 

There were still a few breaks in the barricades along the promenade at this stage. This allows people to get onto the beach form the town side. I crossed over and walked back to the spot we had occupied the other night: Pier 3, Screen 21.

There would be no game of soccer on the sand this time. The place was already very crowded and was I imagined what the size of the crowd would be once the papal entourage had passed through and everyone converged onto the beach to watch the ceremony on the big screen. 

I could not find any of our pilgrims. I was in contact by phone with PGLs from two separate groups who were stuck on the other side of the barricades (the gaps had been closed up not long after I had crossed over). I suspect other groups were in the same situation. They would be there now until the papal motorcade had passed.

Led by a battery of policy and flanked by Vatican security and what I suspect were Brazilian Special Forces soldiers, the motorcade rolled down the Copacabana Esplanade on it way to the main stage. It seem to take a long time to get to where we were. I suspect they might have been travelling a bit too slowly in the early part of the trip become by the time, it reached us,  it was scooting along at a pretty sharp clip.

I jumped up on a low-rise bollard outside the surf club to see if I could get a pic as the motorcade drove past. I was a bit of distance away - and the shots I got were not great. One I the photos taken by a PGL with her iPhone was better - I will try to get a copy of that and put it up.

As expected, once the motorcade had passed, everyone raced beachside to take up a spot near the screen to watch the welcoming ceremony. I caught up with a few groups then but there was such a swarming mass of people (and by this stage it was dark) that I had little chance of finding anyone else. 

Again, there was drizzly intermittent rain and a blustery wind but not bad enough to make things too uncomfortable. Again the ceremony was in Portuguese. There was an address by Pope Francis (I just wish we had a translation as the crowd seemed very moved by what he had said), there was a reenactment of Crucifixion by a group of young people, some extraordinary vocal performances as well as other performance items featuring stunning costuming and sets. An explanation or translation of what we were seeing and hearing would have made such a difference for us but it as still, visually,q very powerful.

Just at the start of  the last part of the ceremony, we packed up and set out to find a bus that would take us somewhere near Aussie Central. We had about a 2/3km  walk to get to the bus terminal at a place called Botofoglia. I journeyed back with my regular group' Bus Group 1. 

My father had an expression:  'For this one, you'll have to catch and kill your own' which he used regularly to tell me  that I had to manage a particular situation entirely by myself and that there  would be no help coming from anywhere. That pretty much described the situation at the Botofoglia bus terminal. There were no directions, no lines, no transport officials - just a cavalcade of buses rumbling in, loading up with pilgrims and rumbling out again into the Rio night.

I was helping with one of the spilt groups from Bus 1. I  was pretty sure the the bus going to Rio Central was going to get us within easy waking distance of Aussie Central. I was wrong. It took us nowhere near Aussie Central. But it did take us to the major bus interchange area, and from there I was able to find another bus, driven by a high-spirited Brazilian which ( I hoped) would get us to where we needed to go. Once again, the power of language. Just being able to ask the right questions can make all the difference!

The route from Rio Central to Aussie Central really was the 'backroads of Rio'. We twisted and turned and stopped and started through - maze of dark narrow streets and tunnels. For most of the journey, our bus also had half-a-dozen Brazilian police on it, which was most reassuring. Eventually, we speared out from beneath overpass (no wonder Brazil has so many champion Formula 1 drivers - there is only one speed here - fast!)  and low-and-behold, we were right at the entrance to the Rio Pier and Aussie Central. We hopped off the bus, I thanked our bus driver for getting us here in mostly one piece and wandered down to local cafe to get some dinner and wait for the others. All things considered, it was a pretty quick trip. It was just after 9.30pm.

I continue to be fascinated by the reaction of the crowds to Pope Francis.  He has captured the imagination of Catholics all over the world (and I suspect non-Catholic as well)  by his humility, his focus on the poor and disadvantaged and his efforts to commence a process of reform in the Vatican. I too am deeply touched by this man who seems oblivious to the trapping of high office and who seems most comfortable and at-ease in non-ceremonial settings. Here seems to be a very decent and good man. As he travelled along in the papal motorcade last night, he kept taking off his scull cap and giving it to someone in the crowd. He would then pull out another one, only to give that one away as well.  I am not sure how many he gave away in the end but i was gesture that said much about who he is as a Catholic leader and what his priorities are. He is less than six months in the role and already he is a man of the people, and a man for the people.

The crowd last night was exuberant and lively. They expressed their faith and devotion to the Holy Father very openly. There were constant chants of 'Papa Francisco' and 'Viva La Papa', as well as songs about him that I did not know or could understand. The South American nations, and I suspect many European and African nations as well, express their faith and their love for the Holy Father in a very open and demonstrative way. I would almost be tempted to say that he received a welcome any rock star would be envious of.

I am not sure this is quite the Australian way. We do not seem to be as outwardly expressive about our faith as those from outer cultural groups. I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing - after all, as Pope Francis himself has shown in his short time in office, it is what is in your heart and how you practise your faith in the service of others that expresses it best. As Antoine de Saint Exupery's character from his novella 'The Little Prince' would have it: (paraphrased), 'It is with the heart that we see best, what matters above all else is what is on the inside.' Maybe we didn't shout as loudly or sing songs of praise as spiritedly as others may have last night to welcome Papa Francisco to WYD2013, but  he would have been very proud of the faith in action shown by our students on the foggy, barren hills of Pamplone Lima  a week or so ago. 

I reckon he would have carried a bucket or two of concrete himself, had he been there...



  1. Thank you Mark for the detailed update. I know that other readers will have imagined themselves in the throng of the events as I did. Looking forward to more updates and wishing you all a blessed time for the remainder of the journey.
    To our daughter, Ebony Morell-Koroi (Bus 2 - Marist Sisters Woolwich); we miss you and know that you will continue to experience God's presence with your fellow pilgrims.XOXO

  2. Thank you Mark and all who have shared stories and do feel we are there with you !! Enjoy your time there and keep posting pics and sharing your experiences
    Hugs to Joshua bus 9
    Bec and les x