Rio de Janeiro – The Mother of Christ Church in Miami, Florida marches through Rio’s downtown in song — the group of young American pilgrims is preparing for Friday night’s vigil with Pope Francis on Copacabana beach. English, Spanish, and even Portuñol (the nickname affectionately assigned to the fusion language of Portuguese and Spanish) fly throughout the air as the multinational group intertwines with other Latin American church groups on their march.
World Youth Day has taken over Rio de Janeiro. The city government made Friday a public holiday, so the downtown streets that usually bustle with business professionals were replaced by Catholic youth, an estimated two million of them, from all over the world.
The vigil at the Copacabana beach is the main event of the weeklong Catholic pilgrimage. Heavy rains turned its original venue into a swamp, so organizers were forced to move the event’s location to the beach. The last-minute schedule change throws plans off, but the positive group, consisting largely of American Latinos, doesn’t seem to mind.
“It’s not religious tourism,” explained Esteban Antonio Hernandez, a Mexican-American missionary originally from Los Angeles. “It’s to see the Holy Father.”
“I’m here to meet concretely with Jesus Christ through the Pope because sometimes it’s not enough just to go to church every Sunday,” José Lopez told Fox News Latino.
Pope Francis famously has earned the reputation of being the “people’s Pope.” The newly inaugurated pontiff has made a lasting impression on the pilgrims at World Youth Day for his informal manner and his ability to speak the language of the youth. Francis, the first Latin American Pope in history, comes as a source of great pride for many Latinos.
“It’s exciting to see someone of our own as pope. I’ve seen many popes, they all have different vibes. We’re very excited about Pope Francis. It’s very encouraging for Hispanic countries,” said Sabrina Solorzano, 26-year-old Nicaraguan-American medical student.
However, other Catholic Latinos, like Esteban Hernandez, don’t see it as huge significance for the Latino community.
“The church is universal, I don’t see it as something political. The Holy Spirit elected Pope Francis,” he explained. “But he is already ‘breaking all the rules.’ He has a special way of caring that he is able to communicate with people like they are his brothers and sisters. To me, he’s like a father.”
For both José Lopez and Esteban Antonio Hernandez, the Catholicism pulled them out of hard times and provided them with hope for the future.
“I was in a deep hole, I didn’t know what was going on with my life. One day I went into an empty church and I heard the word of the Bible. It moved me, it made me learn patience at a time when I didn’t know what was going on,” explained Lopez of turning a new leaf in his life.
“Many things really hurt me when I was younger and I didn’t feel loved anywhere. I looked for happiness in drugs and partying and I found myself in a pit and couldn’t come out of it. God, through the voices of people, announced to me his love,” said Hernandez.
Sabrina Solorzano looks to the church for guidance for her everyday life and decisions.
“My faith is something I want to guide all the decisions I make in life, not something that’s just compartmentalized for Sundays. I want my faith intertwined with my daily activity and decisions. My goal is to become a true Christian, to hear God’s voice, especially as a future physician,” said the fourth year medical student.