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WYD 2013: The terrifying calm on Copacabana Beach

Miguel Cullen writes about his Saturday night spent on Copacabana Beach.

By on Sunday, 28 July 2013

A pilgrim prays in the early morning after the vigil (AP)

A pilgrim prays in the early morning after the vigil (AP)

The purple light from the Papal stage, centre-notched with a gargantuan glowing cross, lights up the swelling froth of the water ten metres away. Pope Francis is delivering his address on Saturday evening. Speaking in porteño Spanish, he talks about the Parable of the Sowers, and how when we face the problems of faith, we invent the myth of having stony, thorny ground, as a reason why the seed of God hadn’t grown in us. Pope Francis, with the virtuoso rhetoric that is his style, then asked each of us to find a small morsel of fertile ground, in the field – a metaphor we, packed like sardines in a tin on the Campus Fidei, could well appreciate.

Later, the crowd laid down and slept. There were so many in the sand. People sleeping with yellow blankets with rose patterns, leopard print blankets, sleeping bags, a Paraguayan flag roped to railings, tents, families embracing for warmth on inflatable mattresses, people lying on folded-out cardboard boxes, nuns wearing Spiderman blankets, drums playing in the background, singing. The figures sleeping in the sand were uncountable, they carried on for three and a half kilometres.

Following the drum noises, I discover a Chilean group from the Camino Neocatecumenal, who, to a backing of drums and guitar, are dancing a samba-style on the Avenida Atlantica, a dance particular to the Camino – a dance which has Jewish roots. Israel, a young pilgrim from Santiago, teaches me, sipping a caipirinha. Israel’s brother, Felipe, aged 22, drinks a beer and tells me he saw snow for the first time on this pilgrimage – when he passed through Mendoza, Argentina.

I pick my way through the crowd, and bump into a group of fellow Argentines: Elisabeth and Laura, who are from the Colegio Máximo and the cathedral of San Miguel in Buenos Aires – where Pope Francis was a rector in the 1980s. They have come in a group of 250.

It’s getting cold around 4.30 am, and a local hawker selling gloves is darting between the tightly packed sleepers. The Southern Cross has shifted in the sky, snores drone intermittently, but the main protagonist is the deep, terrifyingly soft sense of calm. It left a deep, deep memory.

The sky is now a faint pink. I am sharing a cigarette break with some fellows from Quito, when we both see it. Dawn has broken. The Vigil is drawing to a close. I walk on to Avenida Nossa Senhora De Copacabana. Here, there are similar prostrate figures, but skinny, wretched, with filthy rags for blankets, and perhaps with no seed, or flower, growing on their patch of cement – they are different pilgrims.