RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Pope Francis made an emotional plea Wednesday for Roman Catholics to shun materialism in the first public Mass of his initial international trip as pontiff, then echoed that theme when he met with drug addicts at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro.
The session with addicts was meant to drive home the message that the humble pope has repeatedly delivered during his short papacy: that the church must focus on the poor, those who are suffering and the outcasts of society.
During his speech outside the hospital, Francis stuck with the theme of faith and sacrifice that he spoke about earlier in the day during his homily in Aparecida, a small town halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo that is home to one of the most important shrines in Latin America. The pontiff urged Catholics to resist the "ephemeral idols" of money, power and pleasure.
Thousands packed into the huge Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in an agricultural region of verdant fields. Tens of thousands more braved a cold rain outside to catch a glimpse of the first pope from the Americas returning to a shrine of great meaning to the continent and to Francis.
Before the Mass, Francis stood in silent prayer in front of the 15-inch statue of the Virgin of Aparecida, the "Black Mary," his eyes tearing up as he breathed heavily. He later carried a replica of it in his arms. Francis has entrusted his papacy to the Virgin Mary and, like many Catholics in Latin America, places great importance in devotion to Mary.
After his Mass, the pope blessed the tens of thousands gathered outside the basilica and announced that he would return to Aparecida in 2017, the year that marks the 300th anniversary of a fisherman finding the Black Mary statue in a nearby river.
Back in Rio, Francis arrived at the simple white and yellow Saint Francis of Assisi hospital in a closed car under a cold rain, and bounded out not bothering to wait for an umbrella. He entered a small chapel where a group of young Franciscan friars waited excitedly, then headed back out into the rain to greet a group of people in wheelchairs.
The pope smiled widely and spoke in an animated manner with each person in the group, while a crowd held back by metal barriers nearby snapped photos and reached out to touch the pontiff, who returned the reach and grabbed hands and arms.
Before the pope spoke, former drug addicts stood up and told their stories as the pontiff looked on seated just meters away. After the first former addict spoke, his voice full of nerves and emotion, Francis stood, crossed the gap between them and embraced the man, patting him on the back of his head with his right hand, and accepted a hand-made card from the man.
A second addict who stood up thanked all the hospital workers and after he spoke walked over to the pope and shared a long embrace. The man, sobbing, kissed the pope's right hand. A rosary dangled in the former addict's left hand.
The pope, speaking minutes later, blasted "dealers of death" who sell drugs and said that the "scourge of drug-trafficking, that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires of society as a whole an act of courage."
"A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America," the pontiff said. "Rather, it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future."
During his homily in Aparecida, Francis urged Catholics to keep their values of faith, generosity and fraternity.
"It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure," he said. "Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols."
The church is struggling in Latin America to keep Catholics from straying to evangelical and Pentecostal churches that often promise help in finding material wealth, an alluring attraction in a poverty-wracked continent. Francis' top priority as pope has been to reach out to the world's poor and inspire Catholic leaders to go to slums and other peripheries to preach.
It was no coincidence, then, that the first major event of his first foreign trip as pope was a Mass in Aparecida. The shrine, which draws 11 million pilgrims a year, hosted a critical 2007 meeting of Latin American bishops who, under the guidance of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, drafted a mission statement on how to reinvigorate the faith on the continent.
"I've seen people in my own congregation leave because the Evangelicals offer them something new and exciting, and the Catholic Church was seen as kind of old and stuffy," said Marcia Cecilia de Souza, owner of a private school in the southern state of Santa Catarina, as she searched for newspaper to stuff into her soaked leather boots. "Francis is such an inspiration, so humble and giving, I think he's going to bring people back into the fold."
Unlike the scenes of chaos that greeted Francis upon his Monday arrival in Rio, when a mob of faithful swarmed his motorcade from the airport, the security situation in Aparecida was far more controlled. Chest-high barriers kept the faithful far from his car. Soldiers in camouflage, emergency crews in raincoats and other uniformed security forces stood guard along his route while his bodyguards walked along the side of his vehicle.
Not all were pleased with the increased security.
"They put up a Berlin Wall between us and the pope and we couldn't get anywhere near him. You could tell he wanted to get close to us, but the police really insisted on this separation," said Joao Franklin, from Minas Gerais state. "I felt really excluded by all these barriers and don't see the need for them."
Nacilda de Oliveira Silva, a short maid perched at the front of the crowd, was barely tall enough to see over the metal barrier.
"I have been up for almost 24 hours, most of that time on my feet and in the rain and the cold. But I don't feel any pain. I feel bathed in God's glory, and that's because of the pope. For me, it's the same thing as seeing Jesus pass by. That's how moved I feel."
Francis is in Brazil for World Youth Day, a church event that brings together young Catholics from around the world roughly every three years. Approximately 350,000 young pilgrims signed up to officially take part in the Youth Day events.