RIO DE JANEIRO - The faithful, the curious and government leaders prepared on Monday to welcome Pope Francis to the world's biggest Roman Catholic country, as the pontiff travels to Brazil on his first trip abroad since assuming the papacy in March.
Francis is scheduled to land in Rio de Janeiro late Monday, having departed Rome earlier in the day for a week-long visit around World Youth Day, a massive gathering of young Catholics that is expected to attract more than 1 million people to the city and nearby sites.
The trip to the coastal metropolis, a return to his home continent by the former Argentine cardinal, comes as secular interests, other faiths and distaste for the sexual and financial scandals that have roiled the Vatican in recent years cause many Catholics around the world to leave the Church.
The visit also comes amid growing economic and social dissatisfaction in Brazil, which is still home to more than 120 million Catholics. The unease in June led to the biggest mass protests here in two decades as more than 1 million people in hundreds of cities rallied against everything from rising prices to corruption to poor public services.
In the five months since he succeeded Benedict, Francis has pleased many with his simple style, rejection of luxuries and calls for the Church to advocate on behalf of the poor and causes of social justice. Aboard his plane on Monday, the pope told reporters the world risks losing a generation of young people to unemployment and called for a more inclusive culture.
"The world crisis is not treating young people well," Francis, 76, said. "We are running the risk of having a generation that does not work. From work comes a person's dignity."
MESSAGE OF SOLIDARITY
Brazilian officials hope that his message of solidarity with the poor and working classes will minimize the possibility of major protests during his visit.
Still, they have deployed more than 20,000 soldiers, police and security officials for the visit. While some of the measures are routine security provided for any visiting head of state, they are compounded by the popular draw of the pope, especially because Francis has said he plans to travel around the city in an open-top vehicle and occasionally mix with the throngs expected to turn out to welcome him.
Some protests already are planned during the visit, mostly by feminists, gay rights groups and others who disagree with the Church's longstanding social doctrines. Brazil's recent protests, organised through social media by a disparate group of online activists, make other demonstrations likely, even if on a much smaller scale than in June.
Ahead of the visit, however, a festive atmosphere reigned.
Thousands of young pilgrims, many from neighbouring countries and some from as far away as the Philippines, flocked to Rio's sunny seaside during the weekend and endured long lines to visit the city's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf mountain, a giant granite monolith.
Upon arrival, Francis is scheduled to ride through Rio's busy city centre before proceeding to a state government palace, where he will meet with President Dilma Rousseff. Throughout the week, Francis is scheduled to visit a nearby shrine, lead a giant service on Rio's Copacabana beach and give mass at a big rally in a pasture outside the city.
Rousseff, a leftist whose Workers' Party has been in power since 2003, in her welcome speech on Monday, will say Brazil shares the pope's concern for the poor, according to a presidential aide. She also will point to the advances against poverty made by her administration and that of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
In private, Rousseff will propose that Brazil and the Vatican join forces in international cooperation programs to fight poverty and social exclusion in Africa, the official said. She is expected to discuss the protests with Francis if the pontiff raises the issue.
Rousseff's approval ratings were among the highest of any elected leader worldwide before the protests but have plummeted since.