It was no coincidence, then, that the first major event of his first foreign trip as pope was a Mass in Aparecida. The tiny shrine, which draws 11 million pilgrims a year, hosted a critical 2007 meeting of Latin American bishops who, under the guidance of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, drafted a mission statement on how to reinvigorate the faith on the continent.
"I've seen people in my own congregation leave because the Evangelicals offer them something new and exciting and the Catholic Church was seen as kind of old and stuffy," said Marcia Cecilia de Souza, the 52-year-old owner of a private school in the southern state of Santa Catarina, as she searched for newspaper to stuff into her soaked leather boots. "Francis is such an inspiration, so humble and giving I think he's going to bring people back into the fold."
Unlike the scenes of chaos that greeted Francis upon his Monday arrival in Rio, when a mob of faithful swarmed his motorcade from the airport, the security situation in Aparecida was far more controlled. Chest-high barriers kept the faithful far from his car. Soldiers in camouflage, emergency crews in raincoats and other uniformed security forces stood guard along his route while his bodyguards walked along the side of his vehicle.
Nacilda de Oliveira Silva, a short 61-year-old maid, perched at the front of the crowd though she was barely tall enough to see over the metal barrier.
"I have been up for almost 24 hours, most of that time on my feet and in the rain and the cold. But I don't feel any pain. I feel bathed in God's glory, and that's because of the pope. For me, it's the same thing as seeing Jesus pass by. That's how moved I feel."