Pope Francis told young people on Saturday night that God might have been trying to communicate something in forcing the World Youth Day vigil’s change of venue from a huge field to a long narrow stretch of sand and sea.
Addressing as many as three million young – and not so young – people on Copacabana Beach in Rio, Pope Francis said he had prepared a reflection that would have used the original venue, a space baptised “Campus Fidei”, or “Field of Faith”, as the starting point.
“Isn’t the Lord asking us to say that the real field of faith, the real Campus Fidei, isn’t a geographic place but is us?” the Pope told the crowd, which had begun to gather on the beach 12 hours before Francis arrived.
The beach, the site of events with the Pope and pilgrims the two previous evenings as well, became the site of the vigil and the next morning’s closing Mass after several days of unusually heavy rain turned the Campus Fidei into a field of mud and standing water.
Hours of music and dancing – including repeated practices of the dance steps for what organisers hoped would be the world’s biggest flash mob – gave way in the end to a hush in the crowd and the crash of the waves during Eucharistic adoration led by Pope Francis.
Prayer and the sacraments, he told the young people, are absolutely essential for a growth in faith.
One of the pilgrims, 19-year-old Denilson Paulo of St Mark’s parish in the Archdiocese of Luanda, Angola, said the vigil was “an encounter with Christ, an encounter with God” and “a time to pray to God that he may watch over the youth here … the youths of the world”.
The result, Mr Paulo told the US Catholic News Service, must be that the pilgrims “take this message to those who were not able to come”.
The evening’s formal programme began with short speeches from young people: a former drug user from Rio, a priest, a man in a wheelchair who had been shot in a robbery and a female youth minister. They recounted how they came to the faith, then each added a wooden plank to a “church” that was being constructed on the stage.
The Pope recalled the story of St Francis of Assisi, who heard the Lord tell him to rebuild his house.
“Slowly but surely, Francis came to realise that it was not a question of repairing a stone building, but about doing his part for the life of the Church,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis said that for the saint, as well as for all of them, it is about “being at the service of the Church, loving her and working to make the countenance of Christ shine ever more brightly in her”.
Telling the young people that the Church needs each and every one of them to build the Church and share the Gospel with the world, the Pope turned to the image of the field – a place where seeds are sown, a place where athletes train and perform, a place where buildings can be constructed.
“Please,” he told them, “let Christ and his word enter your life, blossom and grow.”
In Jesus’s parables, the seed sown on rocky or fertile ground is the word of God, and the soil is the human heart, he said.
“What kind of ground are we?” he asked, the kind where God’s word just stays on the surface, or starts to grow but withers when enthusiasm dies, or “thorny ground” where “negative feelings choke the Lord’s word in us?”
Pope Francis told the young people he was confident they were fertile soil, “not part-time Christians, not starchy and superficial, but real”.
Turning to one of his own passions and one Brazilians are famous for, Pope Francis spoke of football fields, and especially the athletes who train and sweat, and then train some more.
Jesus, he told them, wants you “to play on his team”.
“Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup,” he said, referring to the soccer championship that Rio will host in 2014.
Jesus offers the possibility of a fulfilling and fruitful life on earth and eternal happiness in heaven, he said, “but he asks us to train, to get in shape” through regular prayer, the sacraments and loving one another.
The Pope had the young people repeat with him: “Prayer, sacraments and helping others.”
Finally, he said, when people’s hearts are prepared to accept the seed of God’s word and people have “worked up a sweat” striving to live a Christian life, “we experience something tremendous: we are never alone, we are part of a family of brothers and sisters, all journeying on the same path: we are part of the Church.”
Pope Francis said the Church they are called to help build is not “a little chapel, which holds only a small group of persons”, but rather a “church so large that it can hold all of humanity”.
Leidiana de Jesus, 32, of Euclides da Cunha, Brazil, said the evening left her with a challenge: “Try and walk the path with Jesus.”
Italo Chinchay Mendoza, 24, a pilgrim from St Peter’s parish in the Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, said one thing was clear: “The youth of the Pope is the youth of the future.”
Pope Francis also used his speech at the evening vigil to make his first public comments about the demonstrations that have been taking part all across Brazil in the past month. He said it is right for young people to want to be “protagonists of change” on behalf of a more just world, but they need to “offer a Christian response” to political and social concerns.