29 July 2013

The Papal Visit

By now everyone knows that Rio de Janeiro was the city chosen to host this year’s Vatican World Youth Day, and that Pope Francis chose to attend the event for his first trip abroad as Pope. As I watched the television coverage I was struck by the amazing "pop star" side of the Pope’s visit, and couldn’t help but see a similarity between Pope Francis and another man named Francis, Francis Albert Sinatra. (It’s a bit of a stretch, but bear with me.) Both men are of Italian heritage. They were both born in the month of December. One was affectionately called St. Francis, Our Father of Song, and the other became Pope Francis, the Holy Father. And both were endowed from on high with charm, charisma, and an uncanny ability to make people swoon. Both became pop celebrities almost overnight.

Francis #1

Francis #2

Really, it’s the screaming and the swooning that most resonated with me. The World Youth Day event was meant to have a solemn and serious side, but this new Pope knows how to work a crowd. Of course this is not what was reported in the so-called First World press. Last Wednesday The New York Times ran an article, Missteps by Brazil Mar Visit by Pope, which highlighted the faulty organization, the tension among the various authorities and the breakdown of Rio’s public transportation system. The Chicago Sun Times, still smarting from Chicago’s loss to Rio as host of the 2016 Olympics, ran a front page story not about the Youth Day event, but about the violent street demonstrations contemporaneous with it, under the headline We Lost to This? Low blow, Chicago. How quickly you’ve forgotten the 1968 Democratic National Convention. What these and other articles completely missed, though, is the stunning emotional impact the event had on Brazilians of all faiths.

I’m no Pollyanna, there’s no question but that the organization had been faulty. And fingers have only begun to point. The Vatican pointed to the city authorities in Rio, Rio’s mayor pointed to the World Youth Day organizers, Rio State’s governor pointed to Rio’s mayor, and round and round they went. Well, they can point fingers all they want, truth is everybody who had any part in the event’s organization deserves a part of the blame. But the challenges were enormous, and in some cases unexpected, like the rain and chilly temperatures. In fact, the challenges were much greater than they will be for the 2014 World Cup (which at least spreads the headaches around to other cities in Brazil) and the 2016 Olympics. The number of expected visitors for those two events is dwarfed by the three million visitors who flocked to Rio from all over Brazil and from 180 countries for this World Youth Day. The Ministry of Tourism reported that more people visited Rio last week than have ever before visited any city in Brazil at one single time. My goodness, no wonder there were problems.

"The Church was only in charge of so much, we had nothing to do with the logistics . . ."

"The Republicans are trying to pin this on me? They won't pull it off this time!"

"Oh, come on, I really had nothing to do with it! It was the new guy."

"I'm just the mayor, I'm not a miracle-worker."

"I wasn't even in the city at the time! I was in a helicopter taking my dog to the vet."

"Everyone's been pointing fingers at me these days, Your Holiness, but I answer to a higher authority . . ."

Curiously, the World Youth Day event actually began a week before the Pope arrived, and there were no reported problems during that week. The "pilgrims" were separated by nationality and hosted all around the State of Rio. Búzios, for example, hosted a contingent from Peru, and the neighboring city of Cabo Frio took in Nigerians. We wondered why people had been separated like that, but we learned that each participating nationality had prepared a presentation of their country’s culture, and they needed to be together to rehearse. No, all was calm until the Pope’s arrival, when his star quality threw everyone into a tizzy. And get ready, Rio, he’s coming back in 2017. After all, he’s already got the keys.

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