RIO DE JANEIRO -- An estimated 3 million people poured onto Copacabana beach yesterday for the final Mass of Pope Francis' historic trip to his home continent, cheering the first Latin American pope in one of the biggest turnouts for a papal Mass in recent history.
Looking out from a white stage at the enormous crowd, Francis, who is from Argentina, urged young Catholics to go out and spread their faith "to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent."
"The church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you!" he said to applause in his final homily of the World Youth Day festivities.
Later, he issued a more pointed message to the region's bishops, telling them to look out for their flocks better and put an end to the "clerical" culture that places priests on a pedestal -- often with what Francis called the "sinful complicity" of lay Catholics who hold the clergy in such high esteem.
The pope's trip, which ended yesterday, was hailed as a success by the Vatican, pilgrims and everyday Brazilians. His nonstop agenda was followed live on television for all seven days, his good nature and modesty charming a nation that counts more Catholics than any other.
"It was great to see the pope on his continent, in his house, speaking his language every day," said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Nearly the entire 2.5-mile crescent of Copacabana's broad beach overflowed with flag-waving faithful, some of them taking an early morning dip in the Atlantic, others tossing T-shirts, flags and soccer jerseys into the pontiff's open-sided car as he drove by. Francis worked the crowd, kissing babies, taking a sip of maté tea handed up to him and catching gifts on the fly.
Even the normally stern-faced Vatican bodyguards let smiles slip as they jogged alongside Francis' car, caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowd.
The numbers clearly overwhelmed the area's services: The stench of garbage and human waste hung in Rio's humid air, and the beach and adjoining chic Atlantic Avenue looked like an improvised refugee camp plunked down in the middle of one of the world's most beautiful cities. Copacabana's famous mosaic sidewalks were strewn with trampled cardboard, plastic bags, empty water bottles and cookie wrappers as trash collectors tried to restore order.
Many of the young people on hand for the Mass spent the night on the beach, an all-night slumber party to end the Catholic youth fest, with pilgrims wrapped in flags and sleeping bags to ward off the cold.
"We were dying of cold but it was worth it," said Lucrecia Grillera, 18, from Córdoba, Argentina, where Francis lived for a time before becoming pope. "It was a tiring day, but it was a great experience."