Pope Francis' escort made a providential error on the way from the airport when he arrived in Brazil for the 2013 World Youth Day.
An enthusiastic welcome
On July 22, 2013, far from the hushed atmosphere of the Holy See press room, the atmosphere was bubbling at the WYD press center in Rio. Tears and shouts of joy from the Brazilian and international journalists who are present accompanied the images of Pope Francis’ first landing outside Italy, four months after his election.
Back on his native continent, the Pope arrived in a country that has traditionally been Argentina’s rival, in soccer and other things. “The pope may be Argentine, but God is Brazilian!” quipped then Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on the Pontiff’s election in March 2013. This did not stop her from proudly welcoming the Pope on his first trip abroad.
At a distance from the crowds …
Welcomed with all the protocol accorded to heads of state, the Pope then drove onto the tarmac in a modest Ford Focus. He observed with palpable melancholy the faithful massed near the airport; they were outside the security perimeter and thus he was unable to address them directly.
Until a “wrong” turn!
The escort then set off on the route that was to take him to the center of Rio. A few moments later, however, the papal motorcade took a wrong turn. The Pope, who was used to public transportation in Buenos Aires, found himself caught in a traffic jam.
The Swiss guards and Vatican gendarmes charged with his protection became nervous. Voices rang out between the various members of the escort, who shouted at each other around the Pope’s car, and the Brazilian police were humiliated on the world’s television screens. The incident was not amusing for the security services of a country then in the throes of violent riots.
But the Argentine Pope rolled down his window and was delighted by the incident, which enabled him to get back in touch with “real people.” Motorists, bikers, and passers-by rushed to meet him. The Pope asked his bodyguards to let them come up to him, and even gave his skullcap to a passer-by. These surreal images set the tone for a visit and then a pontificate geared toward direct contact with the people, even if it meant bypassing protocol and institutions.
A sign of things to come
The correspondent for the French magazine Libération noted his attitude, as well as his small car, which was to become a trademark of his travels. He pointed out that “through this sign, the Pope sends a message of purposeful modesty and closeness to the people below.”
Throughout that astonishing week, Pope Francis’ indulged in “off-program” encounters — such as his impromptu meeting in the cathedral with his energetic Argentine compatriots, or his prayer with evangelical pastors in a Rio favela — that would mark the Brazilian WYD. The first Latin American pope in history would thus open a decade of a pontificate which, following in Jesus’ steps, has been sometimes surprising and disconcerting, but charged with life, joy, and contact with simple people, the poor.
There’s no doubt that in Portugal, too, Francis will find words and gestures that will enable him to “touch” — literally and figuratively — this people marked by a deep attachment to the Catholic faith and to the figure of the pope. So, from Rio to Lisbon, the WYD draws a loop that is full of creativity and the unexpected but also coherent, showing the strength of a pontificate that writes straight with crooked lines … even through the clumsiness of his escort.