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They say Pope Francis is first pontiff they can relate to in a more personal way.

Last updated: July 20. 2013 11:00PM - 803 Views

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Thousands of young Roman Catholics from around the Americas are converging on Rio de Janeiro, taking dayslong bus trips or expensive plane flights that were paid for by baking cookies and holding garage sales, running raffles and bingo tournaments and even begging for coins in public plazas.


Some of the poorest traveled from so-called “misery villages” in Argentina’s capital, thanks to donations from the Buenos Aires archdiocese. Their agenda at World Youth Day includes meeting with other disadvantaged youngsters in Manguinhos, a favela Pope Francis plans to visit, and sharing stories about Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the subway-riding Argentine Jesuit they now affectionately call their “slum pope.”


Road trips can be fun, but many have been expressing more profound emotions, excited by the changes they see in the church since Francis was elected in March. His first months as pope have already renewed their faith, many say, by showing how church leaders can get closer to their people and relate to their real-world problems with humor and a common touch.


“Like anyone else, there have been times when I haven’t had this faith at 100 percent. Now I have more faith than ever, very high. I have my heart completely with God and no one can take me away from there,” said Valentina Godoy, who traveled from Santiago, Chile.


Francis joked when he first emerged on the balcony over St. Peters Square that the cardinals had chosen a pope “from the end of the world.” But for many Catholics on this side of the Atlantic, he’s not only the first Latin American pope. With his history of community outreach, many younger Catholics are saying that he’s the first pope they can relate to in a more personal way.


“We were concerned after Benedict resigned, but when a Latin American pope emerged, so close to young people, it really changed the situation and our numbers grew. A little while ago we thought that there would be 5,000 Chileans and now we see that 9,100 of us are going, more than double what we expected,” said Alonso Molina, the 21-year-old coordinator of a group visiting from Chile’s Vicarate of Youthful Hope.


Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world and its church has struggled to compete with Latin America’s vigorous evangelical Christian movements, so it’s a logical destination. And while many Argentines were disappointed that Francis didn’t choose his native Argentina for his first papal trip outside Italy, they were making the best of it: More than 30,000 Argentines were making the pilgrimage, the largest foreign delegation.


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