RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A wrong turn sent a humble Fiat carrying Pope Francis into the thick of a frenzied Rio crowd Monday, in his first minutes back in South America since becoming pontiff. It was a nightmare for security officials, but for the clearly delighted pope just another opportunity to connect.
Ecstatic throngs forced his motorcade to repeatedly come to a standstill. Francis' driver had turned into the wrong side of a boulevard at one point, missing lanes that had been cleared. Other parts of the pope's route to the city center weren't lined with fencing, giving the throngs more chances to get close.
Vatican and Brazilian security officials struggled to keep the crowds at bay. Francis, however, not only looked calm but got even closer to the people. He rolled down his back-seat window, waved to the crowd and touched those who reached inside. He kissed a baby a woman handed to him.
"His secretary was afraid," papal spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said. "But the pope was happy."
The pope is here on a seven-day visit meant to fan the fervor of the faithful around the globe. That task has grown more challenging as Roman Catholics stray, even in strongholds of the religion such as Brazil, yet it seemed to come easily to Francis even on the drive from the airport to an official opening ceremony.
After finally making it past crowds and blocked traffic, Francis switched to an open-air popemobile as he toured around the main streets in downtown Rio through mobs of people who screamed wildly as he waved and smiled.
He left another popemobile — the bulletproof one — in the Vatican garage so he could better connect with people. As many as 1 million young people from around the world are expected in Rio for World Youth Day, an international conference.
Many in the crowd looked stunned to see the pope, with some standing still and others sobbing loudly.
"I can't travel to Rome, but he came here to make my country better … and to deepen our faith," Idaclea Rangel, a 73-year-old Catholic choked through her tears after the pope passed by.