Pope travels to first public Mass in Brazil

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Pope Francis waves to journalists from a car as he leaves the Sumare residency on his way to the Aparecida basilica for a Mass, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Pope Francis returned to his home continent or the first time as pontiff, embarking on a seven-day visit meant to fan the fervor of the faithful around the globe. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

APARECIDA, Brazil (AP) — A crowd roared and church bells rang as Pope Francis' helicopter arrived Wednesday in Aparecida for the first full day of activities on his inaugural international trip as pontiff.

Tens of thousands of faithful flocked to the tiny town of Aparecida, tucked into an agricultural region halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, where he is to celebrate the first public Mass of his trip in a massive basilica dedicated to the nation's patron saint.

Thousands of pilgrims hoping to get into the Mass braved cold winds to camp out overnight in a line that snaked around the church complex.

Some sought shelter from the Southern Hemisphere winter chill beneath tarps while others wrapped themselves in blankets and sleeping bags.

And many left offerings to the Virgin of Aparecida, Brazil's patron saint.

Lena Halfeld, a 65-year-old housewife, paused to add her offering to a cardboard box filled with stuffed animals, leg braces and other personal objects. She deposited an embossed invitation to her niece's December wedding, which she was praying for the virgin to bless.

"I have real faith in the powers of the Virgin of Aparecida," said Halfeld, adding she had made the hours-long trip to the church once a week for a year during her husband's recent illness. "Now he's cured, so I owe it all to her. I can't think of a more wonderful setting to see the new pope."

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 and the pope's arrival generated such frenzy that crowds mobbed his motorcade as he drove through Rio.

In Aparecida, 16-year-old Natalia Pereira, a high school student from Sao Paulo state, called the cold rain she braved to flock to the basilica a "test of faith."

"I've been up all night in line, I'm soaked to the bone and freezing but I'm so excited that it's worth it," said Pereira, who tried to huddle from the drizzle beneath a friend's oversized umbrella. "This is my first time seeing a pope and this was an opportunity of a lifetime for me. I wasn't about to let it go because of a little rain."