VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis may be visiting more than just Rio de Janeiro when he travels to the Brazilian city for World Youth Day in July.
Yesterday, the Holy Father confirmed via Twitter that he would be traveling to Rio. Before stepping down, Benedict XVI had intended to attend the event that was expected to attract as many as 2.5 million attendees.
But now, with the Church’s first Latin-American pope, Brazilian civil and Church authorities have revised those estimates, placing the number of estimated visitors at 3.5 million or more.
Vatican sources say 1 million Argentinians alone may now travel to Brazil if the Pope doesn’t visit Buenos Aires. Brazil’s organizing officials have been urging the Vatican to add the Argentine capital onto the Pope’s itinerary for the July trip, thereby, they hope, persuading large numbers of Argentines to refrain from traveling the short distance to Rio.
Brazilian officials have become increasingly anxious about their capacity to handle the influx of millions of visitors. Already the proposed venue for the July 23-28 event will be held some distance south of the city in an open field. Organizers are hoping a music concert, organized right after the Church event, will keep many of the young faithful at the venue, thereby allowing a smooth and more orderly winding down of the massive gathering.
The theme for WYD Rio 2013 is taken after Jesus’ command, “Go and make disciples of all peoples.” The official program will be announced in late April.
For the Pope’s part, Vatican sources say he is concerned about returning to Argentina too quickly. Both he and Church officials are also said to be concerned that his visit would interfere with Argentinian elections, which are slated for the fall.
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner invited the Pope to visit Argentina when they met privately March 18. The Holy Father said his calendar was full during the dates she suggested but that he would try to make time. As cardinal, Pope Francis had a number of significant disputes with the president and her government.
For a pope to visit his native country so soon after being elected would not be unusual. In 2005, Benedict XVI attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, just five months after his election. And John Paul II first visited his native Poland in July 1979, nine months after he became Pope. The visit was believed to have been historic, leading to the Solidarity movement.
Several activities have already been planned for Pope Francis in Brazil, including a visit to a favela (slum) and meetings with bishops and other groups.
Organizers are also looking at the possibility that the Pope will visit other Brazilian cities during his trip, such as Aparecida, where the nation’s shrine to the Virgin Mary is located.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is expected to meet Pope Francis in the capital of Brasilia, according to a government official. A spokesman also said that the Brazilian government intends to sign an agreement with the Pope, the first in history, to battle poverty.
High on the list of priorities for the Pope will probably be the rise of Pentecostal sects in Latin America and encroaching secularism. The number of faithful in many Latin-American countries, including Brazil — the most Catholic-populated country in the world — has fallen by nearly a quarter in the past 13 years.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.