RIO DE JANEIRO - As Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Sunday in front of more than 3 million Catholics crowding the iconic Copacabana beach, the pontiff exhorted them: "Go and make disciples of all nations."
That theme has been a key point at World Youth Day, where the first Latin American pontiff reiterated the church's renewed missionary focus, beginning with young people.
"The Gospel is for everyone, not just for some," Francis said. "Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away."
The Mass culminated World Youth Day, a biannual gathering of Catholic youths, but also Francis' first foreign tour as pope. In the nearly week-long trip, he outlined the priorities of his papacy: showing solidarity with the poor, getting priests out of their parishes and closer to the people and re-evangelizing regions where Catholics have abandoned the church.
Francis spoke of that abandonment in his homily given in the world's most populous Catholic country where evangelical congregations have increasingly brought former Catholics to their pews by preaching a Gospel addressing their daily needs and aspirations for increased prosperity.
"I would like Christ's command: 'Go' to resonate in you young people from the church in Latin America, engaged in the continental mission promoted by the bishops," Francis said. "Brazil, Latin America, the whole world needs Christ!"
Francis said Mass for an overflow crowd so large that some stood barefoot in the shallow surf on a beach better known for bronzed bodies than solemn services. It featured uptempo music and worship - features that are increasingly being embraced by Brazilian Catholics as they compete to keep people contemplating moves to evangelical congregations.
At least one observer questioned whether the papal tour could turn the tide back toward Catholicism.
World Youth Day was a "smashing success in connecting with and energizing the young people who attended," says Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "(It's) too early to tell, but it's been a magnificent start in energizing Catholic youth for (being missionaries). In the long run, only the stats will tell if it is successful."
Many at the Mass had stayed behind after a vigil the previous night. Groups of participants -- who call themselves pilgrims -- pitched tents to sleep overnight on the adjacent street to Copacabana Beach, while others unrolled sleeping bags and slept under the stars.