By Philip Pullella and Anthony Boadle
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Pope Francis urged young people on Friday to change a world where food is discarded while millions go hungry, where racism and violence still affront human dignity and where politics is more associated with corruption than service.
Francis, on the fifth day of his first trip abroad since his election in March, went to Rio’s Copacabana beach to preside at a “Way of the Cross” service commemorating Jesus’ final hours as part of an international jamboree of Catholic youth, known as World Youth Day.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to see the Argentine pope at the theatrical event on the crescent-shaped beachfront, giving him yet another of the frenzied welcomes that have defined his trip so far.
He ordered his open-sided popemobile to stop numerous times along his 1.8-mile (3-km) route so he could kiss babies and shake hands. He got out several times to walk along the route, making his security detail nervous again.
In his address, Francis used the analogy of the suffering Jesus to ask the young people to ease the sufferings of the world. He used the theme to address issues ranging from hunger and crime to an oblique reference to the child sex abuse scandal that has roiled the Roman Catholic Church in recent years.
Francis spoke of “the silence of the victims of violence, those who can no longer cry out, especially the innocent and the defenseless.”
He said Jesus was united with families whose children were victims of violence and drug addiction.
“Jesus is united with every person who suffers from hunger in a world where tons of food are thrown out each day … with those who are persecuted for their religion, for their beliefs or simply for the color of their skin,” he said.
In a reference to the sex abuse scandal, he spoke of “young people who have lost faith in the Church, or even in God because of the counter-witness of Christians and ministers of the gospel.”
Since his election in March, the pope has taken strong stands in defense of the environment and has several times said that financial speculation and corruption were keeping millions of people in hunger.
“So many young people who have lost faith in political institutions, because they see in them only selfishness and corruption,” Francis said.
Last month, Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, was rocked by massive protests against corruption, the misuse of public money and the high cost of living. Most of the protesters were young.
“The suffering of Christ is keenly felt here,” the pope said, asking the young people to step outside of themselves and not wash their hands of society’s many problems like Pontius Pilate washed his hands of Jesus’ fate in the gospel.
It was the second time in as many days that the pope urged young people to exploit their drive and energy to change things.
During a visit to a Rio slum on Thursday, he urged them to not lose trust and not allow their hopes to be extinguished. Many young people in Brazil saw this as his support for peaceful demonstrations to bring about change.
At the slum, he issued the first social manifesto of his young pontificate, saying that the world’s rich must do much more to wipe out vast inequalities between the haves and the have-nots.
The first Latin American pope is clearly relishing the enthusiasm at a time when the Church, which once was an unrivalled religious bastion on the continent, is grappling to hold onto faithful.
On Friday, he took on the role of a simple priest and heard confessions of young people. Later, he visited the archbishop’s residence, where he again showed his personal touch by lunching with youth and meeting juvenile inmates.
After four straight days of rain and unseasonable cold, the sun returned to Rio on Friday and the long evening service that included dramatic re-enactments of Jesus’ final hours was held under stars instead of clouds.
But the change in the weather came too late. The rain forced organizers to move this weekend’s two final gatherings to Copacabana from a pasture on the outskirts of the city because it had become a vast field of mud.
The final, climatic event of World Youth Day is Sunday, when Francis presides at a closing Mass before returning to Rome that evening.
(Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
[Image via Agence France-Presse]