LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Pope Francis wrapped up his five-day trip to Portugal on Sunday with a massive open-air Mass for an estimated 1.5 million people who camped out overnight on a vast field to attend the grand finale of the World Youth Day festival.
The sun rose over the River Tagus, waking up pilgrims who slept on mats, cots and the bare ground to be in place for Francis’ Mass, scheduled for early to avoid midday temperatures that are expected to hit 40 degrees C (104 F). Starting at dawn, a priest-DJ started spinning thumping reggae and Christian hymns from the sound system.
Francis set out earlier than planned Sunday morning to loop the field in his popemobile, continuing the improvisation that has characterized this trip. He has ditched speeches in favor of off-the-cuff conversations with young people and substituted a formal prayer for peace in Ukraine at the Fatima shrine, long associated with exhortations of peace and conversion in Russia. The Vatican later published part of the prayer on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
Early on in his 10-year papacy, Francis would frequently go rogue and ignore his pre-planned speeches, seemingly moved by the moment to engage directly with even huge crowds of people. In more recent years, he largely stuck to script especially when visiting places where Christians are a minority or where his audiences might not appreciate his informal style.
But in Lisbon, he’s been back on comfortable turf, with many people who can easily follow his native Spanish and seem to appreciate his conversational way of communicating. On Saturday night, during an evening vigil before 1.5 million people, Francis again ditched his prepared speech to offer instead some words of advice about journeying together through life and faith, egging on the crowd to shout back answers to him.
“The only time it’s right, the only situation where it’s OK to look down at someone from above, is to help him get up,” Francis told them.
Responding to questions about whether the pope’s health is the reason behind his ignored speeches, the Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, has said Francis is in good shape and isn’t suffering any eyesight problems that would make reading his remarks difficult.
The young people seem thrilled with all that he’s been saying and braved a searing temperature of 38 degrees C (100 F) on Saturday to be in place for the vigil service to hear him.
Francis’ message this week has been one of inclusivity, insisting that “everyone, everyone, everyone” has a place in the church. That is consistent with his message that the church isn’t a place of rigid rules where only the perfect can be let in, but rather a “field hospital” for wounded souls, where all are welcome.
“It’s something really important in today’s world to accept us as we are, and to know our place as Christians, and to validate it,” said Doriane Kilundu, a 23-year-old pilgrim from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We really support the message of the pope and we are happy to be here.”
Kilundu said the experience of spending the night on the field, with 1.5 million other people of faith, was a first for her and other Congolese pilgrims.
“I’m in the company of young girls from my country that for the first time are confronted with people from other places, and to understand that we are one nation, and for us is beautiful,” she said.
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