Pope Francis makes his way through Rio de Janeiro in his popemobile. Young… (Aline Massuca / European…)
RIO DE JANEIRO — Pope Francis returned Monday to South America on his first official trip since becoming pontiff, thrilling a picture-taking, flag-waving, dancing and singing crowd of thousands energized by the breath of fresh air he has brought to the Vatican.
The Argentine-born pope, who has added a sense of humility and a common touch to the Vatican, came to Brazil to attend World Youth Day, an annual international gathering of young Catholics. But expectations are high in Brazil and throughout Latin America among many who are looking for the church to reengage with the region's pressing social issues.
The anticipation was evident among young pilgrims in multicolored T-shirts who jammed streets in downtown Rio de Janeiro hours before Francis landed at the city's airport. When the smiling pontiff rode through the city center in a popemobile, the crowds cheered and laughed.
PHOTOS: Pope Francis visits Brazil
"I just had to come and show my adoration," said Isabel Cristina Santos de Carvalho, 17, who lives in a complex of Rio's favelas, or slums, and belongs to a religious youth organization. "Francis is with us at all times, but today he's actually in my country."
Francis later took a helicopter ride to an official welcoming ceremony hosted by President Dilma Rousseff.
"I ask permission to come in and spend this week with you," he said in deliberate but clear Portuguese. "I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ!"
"Christ has confidence in young people and entrusts them with the very future of his mission, 'Go and make disciples.' "
Rousseff has faced protests recently over poor government services and the gap between rich and poor in Brazil, and demonstrators planned to use the pope's presence in Brazil to press their demands on the government. The president used Francis' presence to address the pressure for reform.
"We know that in you, we have a religious leader who is sensitive to the yearnings of our people for social justice, and for opportunities for all," she said. "We struggle against a common enemy: inequality in all its forms."
Francis embarked on the trip in characteristic fashion — waiting in line to board the Alitalia flight and carting his carry-on luggage. Journalists accompanying the former Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio were more than a little amused to see the famously humble pontiff dispense with many of the formalities that customarily go with papal voyages.
Speaking to reporters on the plane, he decried unemployment among youth and society's disregard for the elderly.
"A people has a future if it goes forward with bridges: with the young people having the strength to bring it forward and the elderly, because they have the wisdom of life," the pope said, according to journalists onboard the flight.
Devout Catholics are hoping the pope's charisma will bolster the country's faithful. Brazil is the largest Catholic country, but it is less Catholic than it has ever been.
According to a poll conducted recently by the local Datafolha organization, only 57% of Brazilians identify themselves as Catholics, and fewer than 16% say they attend weekly Mass. Protestant evangelicals are making strong inroads among the Catholic faithful.
Among the crowds who gathered to see Francis in downtown Rio on Monday was Cleyton Terto, a 40-year-old bank manager and an evangelical Christian. He said he came to take a picture of the pope for his wife, a Catholic.
"This pope makes me sympathize more with the Catholic Church than I have in a long time, due to all of its errors like the abuse of children ... he's closer to the people, more human," Terto said. "He's like a pop star."
During his stay in Brazil, Francis will walk the Stations of the Cross on the glittering Copacabana Beach and visit a slum so poor and violent it was once known as the Gaza Strip.
His election in March, when church leaders shattered unwritten rules that had stood for centuries by turning to the New World and a Jesuit, was seen in part as an attempt to move the Roman Catholic Church beyond a string of debilitating scandals. And many hoped the relative fresh face of an outsider would help win back those millions, especially from the non-European world, who have abandoned or become disillusioned with the church in recent years.
In Brazil, Francis faces an audience that has been galvanized by often raucous demonstrations protesting social ills, including misguided spending by a once-popular government, lack of healthcare, poor education and a woefully faulty justice system. In those grievances, Brazil, until now seen from afar as a darling of economic success, echoes the most egregious problems that have beset Latin America.