RIO DE JANEIRO — Frenzied crowds of Roman Catholics mobbed the car carrying Pope Francis on Monday when he returned to his home continent for the first time as pontiff, embarking on a seven-day visit meant to fan the fervor of the faithful around the globe.
During his first minutes in Brazil, ecstatic believers swarmed around the closed Fiat several times when it was forced to stop by heavy traffic on the drive from the airport to an official ceremony in Rio’s center. A few security guards struggled mightily to push the crowd back in scenes that at times looked alarming. Church and city officials said the pope’s driver turned into the wrong part of a boulevard and missed lanes that had been cleared.
Francis looked calm during the frenzy. He rolled down the window on the back passenger-side of the car where he was sitting, waving to the crowd and touching those who reached inside.
At one point, a woman handed the pontiff a dark-haired baby, whom he kissed before handing back.
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. Many in the crowd looked stunned, with some standing still and others sobbing loudly.
Idaclea Rangel, a 73-year-old Catholic, was pressed up against a wall and choking out words through her tears. “I can’t travel to Rome, but he came here to make my country better … and to deepen our faith,” she said.
Anti-government protesters clashed with police outside a welcoming ceremony for Francis, but the anger was directed at Brazilian leaders and not the pontiff. A Vatican official also said that authorities had found a small, homemade bomb near a church the pope plans to visit Wednesday but that it didn’t appear connected to the pontiff’s visit.
At the airport earlier, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff vigorously shook Francis’ hand after he descended the stairs following a no-frills charter flight that arrived in late afternoon.
The pope was handed two bouquets of white and yellow flowers by two adolescent girls, each of whom he kissed on the cheek.
Reaching the end of the red carpet full of church leaders and other dignitaries, Francis and the Brazilian president paused to be serenaded by a choir of about three dozen young people singing an anthem linked to World Youth Day, an event uniting hundreds of thousands of young faithful from around the globe.
Before singing, the kids robustly yelled soccer-like chants in the pope’s honor.
During the official welcoming ceremony later, Francis said he had come “to meet young people from all over the world” attracted by the messages of Jesus. “They want to find a refuge in his embrace, right near his heart to hear his call clearly and powerfully: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’”
It was the first time the Argentine-born Francis returned to his home continent since his selection as pope in March.
During his stay, the 76-year-old pope will meet with legions of young Catholics converging for the church’s World Youth Festival in Rio.
More than 1 million people are expected to pack the white sands of Copacabana for ceremonies presided over by Francis.
He will also visit a tiny chapel in a trash-strewn slum and make a side trip to venerate Brazil’s patron saint, Our Lady of Aparecida.