Pope to say mass at Brazil's Catholic shrine

Argentine-born Pope Francis arrived Wednesday at Brazil's most revered shrine, where tens of thousand of pilgrims braved rain and cold to hear his first mass in Latin America.

A helicopter carried the pope to the shrine from Rio de Janeiro, where he arrived Monday to attend World Youth Day, a major Catholic fest.

Pilgrims spent the night in the streets despite the foul weather, hoping for a glimpse of the first Latin American and Jesuit pontiff.

An estimated 15,000 people were to hear the mass inside the basilica while another 200,000 outside were to expected outside, with 5,000 police and soldiers providing security.

"I arrived early to be sure to get a place and I will stay as long as necessary to see the pope," said 62-year-old Tereza Souza, who traveled from Minas Gerais state.

"It is very important for me to see him, He is such a nice man, very simple, a saint," she added.

Joaquim Pedro dos Santos, 77, also arrived from Minas Gerais Tuesday.

"I don't care about the rain, I want to see the pope in person even fleetingly in the street. I want to know him."

Brazil's ability to handle this week is seen as a test of its capacity to host the football World Cup next year and the Olympic Games in 2016.

The tumultuous welcome for the pope in Rio was plagued by security and logistics problems.

On Tuesday, Rio's subway broke down, causing chaos for throngs of pilgrims at a hugely attended welcome mass led by the archbishop of Rio on the iconic Copacabana beach.

In Aparecida, a town of 35,000 people that sits halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, there were huge welcome banners and the area has been spruced up.

"The pope is the best mayor we can get -- in less than a week, he managed to have the streets repaved with asphalt," beamed local resident Maria Elena de Oliveira ahead of the event.

After mass, the pontiff will travel in an open-top jeep to cover the more than two kilometers (1.2 mile) separating the shrine and the Bom Jesus seminary where he will rest and have lunch.

The 76-year-old Argentine previously visited the famous shrine at Aparecida -- which houses a dark 18th-century statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- during a bishops conference in 2007.

As Buenos Aires archbishop, he then chaired the panel which drafted the final document of the conference, a text that declared strong support for the poor in a region that is home to 40 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

The pontiff's representatives have said the Catholic leader aims to reconcile the young with the message of a church able to renew itself at a time of crisis over a financial scandal and the sexual abuse of minors.

"He wanted to come to Aparecida by Marian devotion (a willingness to dedicate oneself to the Virgin Mary) and to officiate the first mass with the Brazilian people, but by visiting the shrine he is also saluting the whole region," said priest Roni Dos Reis, a spokesman for the event.

"I think that for us Latin Americans, here in Aparecida he will also outline this social message of commitment to the poor, to give dignity and not paternalism to people," he added.

Those gathered at the historic site wanted to see the pope up close.

"He is charismatic and we want to be near him to feel the quality of his spirit. It's the way for the young to get closer to the church in Latin America," said Emanuel Robles, a 29-year-old Mexican.

Pedro Hernandez, 27, also Mexican, said: "I like his sensitivity and humility, two things which the Catholic church lacks."

Pope Francis arrived in Rio to a rock-star welcome Monday, on his first overseas trip since his March election.

Last year, 10 million pilgrims visited Our Lady of Aparecida, which was proclaimed Brazil's patroness in 1930 and is celebrated on October 12. Francis will become the third pope to visit the shrine -- after John Paul II, in July 1980, and Benedict XVI, in May 2007.

But despite his popularity, the pope has faced protests over the $53 million spent on organizing his visit and World Youth Day.

Without referring to the criticism or to last month's nationwide street protests in Brazil to demand better public services and an end to corruption, Francis said: "I have neither gold nor silver, but I bring the most precious that has been given to me, Jesus Christ."

He called for a guarantee of basic human rights for the youths of the world, such as "security and education".