Despite the political protests in Rio one cannot escape the atmosphere of joy and holiness

“¡ESTA ES LA JUVENTUD DEL PAPA!”, came the unison of voices as thousands of pilgrims surged through the tunnel connecting Guanabara Bay with Copacabana Beach on Friday afternoon.

On this winter’s day, the sun set around 5.30pm. By the time I had queued for four hours at the Sambódromo, the stadium where Rio’s Carnival processes, dark was approaching.

The gravy-colour, deadbeat facades around the Sambdóromo soon gave way to peaks of Rio’s city-centre skyscrapers, past Niemeyer’s Cathedral and onto the confident sea front, where, as Carioca poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade put it “No mar estava escrita uma cidade” meaning, “In the sea, there was a city written out.”

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Storm clouds gathered around the Cristo Redentor, a presage of weather to come. On the way to Copacabana, I meet Shaun Crumb, a Maryknoll seminarian and member of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He is with a group of 58 Bolivians, aged from 18 to 28.

One of them is Jonathan Gastelu, who tells me how he was so overjoyed when he saw the Pope arrive that he burst out crying. These young people had arrived in Rio via Campo Grande, in the Mato Groso, where they had spent time, among other things, going door to door trying to spread the word of God. “We felt like Jehovah’s Witnesses” said Sean, with his long hair and wispy goatee, “but there an atmosphere there which made me feel we made progress”.

Soon after, I lost Shaun as he sprinted to the crash barriers that would line the Pope’s motorcade away from the beach.

Military police, armed with truncheons and pistols, pose menacingly, at eight metre intervals along the path. Sirens blare, and thousands of pilgrims swell the walls of the tunnels and the raised walls. One young man walks by, inciting pilgrims to join the anti-government protests going on nearby:

“I believe in God, but the police of Rio de Janeiro kills a lot. Damn – it’s good here, he (the Pope)’s with the poor, there’s lots of peace – and a lot of wisdom in that. But we’re the working men of Rio and we don’t have peace.

“There’s been violence from the police against us – it’s pitted Brazilian against Brazilian, blood against blood. There are people who have a lot and people who have nothing. I’ve got three children hermano. I’ve got to fight for my bread.”

Soon after I follow two photographers from O Globo newspapers to the protests. Ironically, the protests are partly against the news corporation itself, in part. Violence erupts – police are pushing me back, throwing truncheons at balaclava-clad protestors, flashbulbs flash, protestors point lasers to cover the cameras up on the press balcony, screams cry out: “We’re the working men of Rio and we don’t have peace.”

But – it’s important not to lose sight of the true face of Rio in these past few days – make no mistake, the feeling of beauty, of holy energy in the streets of Rio on Friday was a wave of pure unalloyed intensity and joy. “I want to be a barrio priest” says Jesus Godoy, 28, a seminarian from Caracas. He gives me some rosary beads as a gift.

It seems Pope Francis’s influence is instilling itself in the massed ranks of South American Catholics.

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