Organizers say around two million people have gathered at Copacabana Beach in the South Zone of the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro on Saturday for the Vigil, a key event for the week-long Roman Catholic World Youth Day (WYD) festival.
The crowds, consisting of over a million visiting pilgrims from across Brazil and around 150 countries from five continents, packed the 4km- (2.5-mile-) long beach on the first day of sunny weather during the event -- which usually happens every three years but was brought forward by a year to avoid clashing with next year's World Cup, also being hosted in Brazil.
Saturday saw up to a million pilgrims process from Rio's famous Central do Brasil railway station in central Rio to the Copacabana venue in Rio's South Zone -- a distance of some 9.5km (5.9 miles) -- to take part in the Vigil, a traditional mainstay of the festival, at which many are expected to stay until the Final Mass on Sunday morning.
Bus, train and metro services are expected to run uninterrupted throughout the night for the event.
Pope Francis, who is in Brazil for World Youth Day on the first overseas trip of his papacy, opened the Vigil and will also lead the Final Mass, now taking part in Copacabana after a specially-built venue in the west of the city was waterlogged and declared unfit for use after days of rain.
Rio mayor Eduardo Paes admitted on Thursday that the city’s planning for WYD fell below expectations.
The police have also warned crowds of attacks by local criminals taking advantage of the influx of visitors, with one theft or mugging being reported every ten minutes on Copacabana on Saturday.
Local firefighting crews warned those on the packed beaches of the risk of drowning, with over 100 rescued from the sea in just one day.
- Pope opens all-night Vigil
Opening the Vigil, young people spoke of their life struggles -- beginning with an emotional speech by former drug addict Carlos Lins, and there was also a performance by Brazilian pop star Luan Santana.
The Argentinian-born Pope, speaking mainly in his native Spanish, started his Vigil speech mentioning how St. Francis of Assisi had helped build the Church. His speech, which was largely informal, repeatedly asked those gathered whether they would help build a new Church.
The pontiff included references to football, traditionally seen as Brazil's national obsession, and told crowds that "Jesus offers more than the World Cup" -- public spending on which had driven many anti-government protesters to the streets in recent weeks.
Speaking about the protests, Pope Francis told the faithful "not to be cowards", but to keep up the fight against social injustice, and protest on the streets, as long as they did so "in an orderly, peaceful, responsible way."
Switching back to Portuguese, he ended the speech by telling those gathered that they were the true "Field of Faith" and the "builders of a more beautiful Church and a better world."
- 'Leave comfort of churches and go to favelas'
Earlier on Saturday Pope Francis met with native Indians, as well as members of civil society at the city’s Municipal Theatre and asked for "constructive dialogue" to move forward from the current impasse with protesters.
"Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always one possible option: dialogue. Dialogue between generations; dialogue with the people; give and take while remaining open to the truth," the pontiff said.
"It is impossible to imagine a future for society without the vigorous contributions of moral energies in a democracy," Pope Francis said, continuing: "The only way for a person, a family, a society to grow [and] the life of the people to move forward is a culture of meeting [each other]; a culture where everyone gives something good and everyone can receive something good in exchange."
Valmir Júnior, a former drug user, also gave an emotional speech of how he believed the Church had helped him conquer his addiction and that WYD would leave a "social legacy" for the city.
The Pope also celebrated mass with bishops and clerics at Rio's São Sebastião Metropolitan Cathedral, where he cited Mother Teresa and criticized society's "culture of exclusion" of the elderly and the young.
He warned church clerics and bishops to leave the "comfort of their churches" and to head to the poorer areas of the city, including the favelas (shantytowns) communities -- which he has also visited as part of his trip.
"We cannot keep ourselves locked up [safe] in our parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel," the pontiff said.
The pontiff later made use of his Popemobile to greet pilgrims and well-wishers between events.
- Slutwalk turns into protest against Rio state governor
July 27 was also set as the date for the now-annual Rio Slutwalk -- the local incarnation of the global movement which aims to draw attention to women’s and LGBT rights -- and has coincided with WYD and the Pope’s visit.
Given the presence of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, many attending the event had planned to voice their opposition to various stances taken by the Vatican, as well as to domestic issues, including the criminal status of routine abortions and the level of violence experienced by women in Brazil.
Pilgrims also in the area took protesters to task on the topic of legalizing abortions, with some angry exchanges between "Sluts" and WYD participants reported, with other pilgrims saying they were shocked by the protesters.
However, the protest -- which is in its third year in Rio -- turned into a general rally against Rio state governor Sérgio Cabral, who has been a focus for many protesters.
The results of a recent poll showed that just 12 percent of Rio residents approved of the governor.
One protester, Rio-born human rights activist Rafael Puetter, 28, told the Anadolu Agency that the protest was good-natured and peaceful and had, in part, attempted to draw attention to the influence of the Church -- both Catholic and Evangelical Protestant -- on Brazilian politics, particularly by Deputy and Pastor Marco Feliciano -- who is accused of making homophobic and racist comments despite his roles as Head of Brazil's Human Rights and Minorities Commission.
- Next WYD location to be revealed
Sunday is the final day of Pope Francis's trip to Brazil and will see the last major event of WYD 2013, the Final Mass -- which has also been transferred to Copacabana Beach.
The pontiff will hold his final services and meet volunteers before heading for his flight back to Italy at around 7 p.m. Sunday evening.
The location for the next Worth Youth Day is set to be revealed at the event.
Despite some protests -- both on the streets and on social media -- and the fiasco surrounding the botched Campus Fidei venue, the Brazilian government and the Vatican are both likely to be satisfied by the visit, which has largely shown Brazil, the Pope and the Church in a positive light.
The country's Ministry of Tourism has also announced that the event has so far proved the busiest in Brazilian history -- with the two million visitors expected to spend aroun
Of those foreign tourists surveyed, nearly 73 percent said they were on their first trip to Brazil and 93 percent were reported as saying they would like to return to the country in the future. However, fewer than seven percent said they were staying in hotels, which are often seen as overpriced and substandard in terms of quality and value for money.