Pope participates in stations of the cross

Pope Francis presided over one of the most solemn rites of the Catholic Church on Friday, a procession re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion in the improbable location of Rio’s hedonistic Copacabana beach, as he headed into the home stretch of his first international trip for World Youth Day.

The evening procession highlighted Francis’ deep spiritual side a day after he showed off his rebel streak by calling on young Catholics to shake things up in their parishes and make a “mess” by going out to the streets to spread their faith.

Francis took a long drive in his open car along Rio’s oceanfront to reach the stage, kissing babies brought to him and waving to the shrieking crowds held behind fences and soldiers in camouflage. He then watched on in prayer as young people began the procession, which recounts the final hours of Christ’s life as he is condemned to death and crucified.

The procession is one of the mainstay events of World Youth Day, designed to remind young Catholics about the root of their faith — that Christ died to forgive their sins. Francis drove home that message at the start of Friday, hearing confessions of five young pilgrims in a Rio park.

“It was just five minutes, it followed the regular ritual of confession, but then Francis stayed and talked with us,” said one of the five, Estefani Lescano, 21, a student from La Guaira, Venezuela. “It was all very personal. He told us that young people have the responsibility of keeping the church alive and spreading the word of Christ.”

Later, he met privately with a few juvenile detainees, a priority of his since his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires and an expression of his belief that the church must reach out to the most marginalized and forgotten of society.

Even now as pope, he calls a group of youths in a Buenos Aires detention center every two weeks just to keep in touch, and one of his most memorable gestures as pope was his Holy Thursday Mass at a juvenile detention center in Rome where he washed the feet of young offenders.

On Friday, the young offenders presented Francis with a large homemade rosary made of Styrofoam balls, each one bearing the names of the eight street children gunned down by police death squads in 1993 as they slept outside Rio’s Candelaria church — a notorious massacre that underscored the unequal treatment that outcasts often receive in Brazil. On the cross were the words “Candelaria Never Again” in Portuguese.

Francis also had lunch with a dozen World Youth Day volunteers from around the globe, bringing them to tears when he asked them a simple rhetorical question on which to reflect: Why were they here having lunch with the pope while others were hungry in the slums?

The sun finally came out Friday, ending four days of rain that soaked pilgrims and forced the relocation of the festival’s culminating Mass on Sunday. Instead, the Mass and the Saturday night vigil that precedes it will take place at Copacabana beach rather than the mud pit covering the original site in Guaratiba, about 30 miles west of central Rio.

The improved weather also provided a brighter backdrop for his words to young and old during his noon prayer, in which he praised the elderly for passing on wisdom and religious heritage.

Francis has made a point of not just focusing on the next generation of Catholics during World Youth Day, but on the older generation as well. It’s part of his longstanding work caring for the elderly in Argentina, the crucial role his own grandmother played in his spiritual development and the gentle deference he shows his predecessor, Benedict XVI.