RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Temptation is obvious everywhere — there are the beaches and the bikinis, the sultry samba beat and, as even the visiting Pope Francis cautioned in a memorable quip, the local sugar-cane-based liquor, cachaca, which packs a wallop.
Rio's enthralling attributes weren't lost on Carlos Carrillo, a 37-year-old American pilgrim who said he was well aware of the place's ribald reputation before he arrived for the pope's first overseas journey. "This is sin city," said Carrillo, a cargo screener who traveled with seven others from his California parish.
But during the pontiff's visit, which ends today with a final Mass on the usually hedonistic Copacabana beach, the bawdy Rio of samba nightclubs and Carnaval gave way to a different kind of festival: the weeklong annual World Youth Day, a gathering of young Catholics from around the globe who this year came to Brazil to renew their faith with Francis at the dawn of his papacy.
Think of it as Woodstock for Catholics, minus Jimi Hendrix, the free love and the marijuana.
"Show your love for Christ," Francis exhorted, and they have, coming from nearly 180 countries to atone for sins and strengthen their bond with the church. That they are doing it in Rio — a city world-famous for drunken revelry that has earned it the church's censure over the years — at first might seem to be a contradiction.
But while Rio may be known for luring partygoers, it also has long attracted missionaries, preachers and Christian soldiers who know they'll find folks in need of spiritual cleansing — sinners of every stripe. The proof is in the elaborate evangelical churches in the city, among the world's biggest.
"Biblically speaking, Christ always goes to the darkest places," Carrillo said. "The way I see it, he's reeling in people, in that sense."
Many young Catholics here said they came to focus on their faith, not Rio's enticements. Camila Lara, 18, from Parana state in Brazil's south, said she was especially drawn by the chance to show contrition, made easy here by the Catholic Church's "we'll-come-to-you" strategy.
She asked for forgiveness, like many others, at Rio's Quinta da Boa Vista Park, where priests and the pope listened to penitents in dozens of makeshift confessionals (Francis heard from three Brazilians, a Venezuelan and an Italian).
"Sincerely, for me, it was the best confession I ever had," Lara said.
For the Rev. Antoine d'Eudeville, a priest from Paris who heard confessions in the park, it was an unusually gratifying experience. He had just heard the pope speak Friday night from an elaborate stage on the beach and was reflecting on a spirited week.
"For us priests, it's a special time, because it's not usual to have young people come to us asking for forgiveness," d'Eudeville said. "Some people don't go for years."
D'Eudeville commented on how Catholicism in Brazil, a country he had never visited, seems to be so much "more a part of people's lives, more so than in France."
He was especially moved, he said, by the young Catholics seeking absolution.
"Young people here are strengthened in their faith, in their trust in God," he said. "They dare go to confession and go to a priest and say heavy things, unload heavy burdens."
Young Catholics interviewed in the streets of Copacabana, their countries' flags draped across their shoulders, said they were heeding the pontiff's message. And Francis, who has been lauded for his plainspoken ways, told his followers: "Jesus never tires of forgiving us."