Rio De Janeiro: Bringing his message of a "poor Church for the poor," Pope Francis headed for Brazil on Monday to find a country facing a shrinking Catholic flock and anger over government waste.
Francis left Rome for Rio de Janeiro shortly before 0700 GMT, embarking on his first foreign trip abroad since becoming pontiff. In keeping with his trademark simplicity, the 76-year-old carried his own hand luggage onto the plane.
"I am arriving in Brazil in a few hours and my heart is already full of joy because soon I will be with you to celebrate the 28th WYD," Francis tweeted after his departure.
Pilgrims from around the world were gathering in Rio for World Youth Day, arriving by bus from neighboring nations or landing by plane from across the ocean to greet the first pope from Latin America.
As men in swim trunks and women in tiny bikinis dived in the waves, workers climbed scaffolding on Copacabana beach yesterday to finish the ornate stage that the pope will use to greet throngs of young people on Thursday.
Nuns checked in at hotels while other pilgrims walked on the beach, flaunting the colors of their countries as if it was already the 2014 World Cup. More than one million people are expected for the festivities.
"We have a Jesuit pope who is eternally simple, humble, who is revolutionizing the Catholic Church," said Antonio Prada, a 27-year-old Venezuelan clad in a T-shirt in his country`s yellow, blue and red colors.
"His message is that we should be like Christ, that he`s the example to follow," Prada said as he walked along Copacabana`s swirling, black and white promenade.
Speaking from the Vatican yesterday, Pope Francis said: "Everybody who is going to Rio wants to hear Jesus. And they want to ask him: `Jesus, what must I do with my life, what is my path?`"
The Argentine pope`s message of a simpler church, closer to the people, may strike a nerve in this emerging power. Brazil has become richer in time but struggles with corruption and lagging public services that brought some one million protesters to the streets last month.
Despite the past protests, which were sometimes marred by violence, the pope is ditching his armored "Popemobile" for an open-top jeep to have direct contact with the people.
Authorities are deploying 30,000 troops and police in the crime-riddled city.
During his week-long visit, Francis will see the faces of Brazil`s success and struggles, starting with a meeting today with President Dilma Rousseff and followed by a visit to one of Rio`s sprawling favelas, or slums, on Thursday.
While Francis meets Rousseff in the Rio state governor`s palace, atheists and the Anonymous protest group plan to demonstrate outside against the USD 53 million spent from public coffers for the pope`s visit.