BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Thousands of young Roman Catholics from around the Americas are converging on Rio de Janeiro, taking dayslong bus trips or expensive plane flights that were paid for by baking cookies and holding garage sales, running raffles and bingo tournaments and even begging for coins in public plazas.
Some of the poorest traveled from so-called "misery villages" in Argentina's capital, thanks to donations from the Buenos Aires archdiocese. Their agenda at World Youth Day includes meeting with other disadvantaged youngsters in Manguinhos, a favela Pope Francis plans to visit, and sharing stories about Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the subway-riding Argentine Jesuit they now affectionately call their "slum pope."
Road trips can be fun, but many have been expressing more profound emotions, excited by the changes they see in the church since Francis was elected in March. His first months as pope have already renewed their faith, many say, by showing how church leaders can get closer to their people and relate to their real-world problems with humor and a common touch.
"Like anyone else, there have been times when I haven't had this faith at 100 percent. Now I have more faith than ever, very high. I have my heart completely with God and no one can take me away from there," said Valentina Godoy, who traveled from Santiago, Chile, and shared her feelings from Brazil on a video her local church group posted on YouTube.
Francis joked when he first emerged on the balcony over St. Peters Square that the cardinals had chosen a pope "from the end of the world." But for many Catholics on this side of the Atlantic, he's not only the first Latin American pope. With his history of community outreach, many younger Catholics are saying that he's the first pope they can relate to in a more personal way.
"We were concerned after Benedict resigned, but when a Latin American pope emerged, so close to young people, it really changed the situation and our numbers grew. A little while ago we thought that there would be 5,000 Chileans and now we see that 9,100 of us are going, more than double what we expected," said Alonso Molina, the 21-year-old coordinator of a group visiting from Chile's Vicarate of Youthful Hope.
Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world and its church has struggled to compete with Latin America's vigorous evangelical Christian movements, so it's a logical destination. And while many Argentines were disappointed that Francis didn't choose his native Argentina for his first papal trip outside Italy, they were making the best of it: More than 30,000 Argentines were making the pilgrimage, the largest foreign delegation.
That includes President Cristina Fernandez, who cast aside her political rivalry with the former Buenos Aires cardinal after he became pope, and plans to make more displays of affection next week. While Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff invited South American leaders to the final Mass on July 29, Fernandez also plans to attend Monday's opening ceremony, Argentina's Catholic News Agency reported.
Hundreds of young Catholics left Buenos Aires cathedral Friday night in a caravan of buses on the 40-hour, 1,500-mile trip to Rio. Many others left earlier from provinces around Argentina. About 9,500 signed up from the United States; 5,000 from Paraguay and 4,500 from Mexico.
In all, 350,000 young Catholics signed up, similar to previous World Youth Days that later attracted much larger crowds. In any case, Brazilian authorities prepared to receive a million or more visitors during the pope's weeklong stay.
Many Argentines had already planned to attend last year, "but everything got bigger after March 13, with the boom that was generated by the news that the Pope is from our land and our city," said the Rev. Marcelo Miceli, trip coordinator for the Buenos Aires archdiocese.
The diocese channeled contributions and was able to subsidize all-inclusive trips for $500 a person, Miceli said. "We've received a lot of help from the community, many donations. It has generated an incredible wave of solidarity."
But despite months of lobbying by the Vatican's top diplomat in Argentina, Emil Paul Tscherrig, the church got no reprieve from Argentina's tax agency, AFIP, which refused to loosen currency controls so that pilgrims might be able to trade their devaluing pesos for Brazilian reals at favorable official exchange rates.
Pilgrims wanting to buy Brazilian currency in Argentina were forced to turn to illegal traders, getting about half as much money in return for their pesos. Those wealthy enough to have credit cards can use those in Brazil, and later pay a 20 percent penalty to the Argentine government for each purchase.
AFIP's press office refused to comment on the controversy, which prompted an official public complaint from the church: "We made many appeals to various government agencies, but we have not received official responses about the possibility of changing money," the statement said.
Paraguay doesn't limit currency trading, but poverty is a grim reality for many members of the Catholic church in that country.
"To put together the money necessary for the trip and our stay, since we're so poor, we had to ask for help from others and organize food fairs, selling noodles with chicken sauce, hamburgers, sodas and other fast food," said Ismael Diaz, who organized a group of 300 young people traveling from the Virgin of Rosario parish in the city of Luque.
Chilean youths told similar stories of bake sales, raffles and shaking cans in the streets to raise money for the trip.
"It's something I have always wanted to do. It's important for any young Catholic person to attend and to reconfirm their faith," Ezequiel Sanchez, a 28-year-old small business owner, said before he and 18 others from his church boarded their flight from Mexico City.
Associated Press Writers Michael Warren in Buenos Aires; Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile; Pedro Servin in Asuncion, Paraguay; and Ivan Pierre Aguirre in Mexico City contributed to this report.