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Dozens of bishops and millions of pilgrims take part in a flash mob on the evening of the WYD vigil. Copyright: WYD 2013

Dozens of bishops and millions of pilgrims take part in a flash mob on the evening of the WYD vigil. Copyright: WYD 2013

By Michelle Hough, Caritas Internationalis communications officer in Rio de Janeiro

It has been confirmed to me that Pope Francis is bigger than the Rolling Stones. Well, a woman in a shop told me so earlier and Fr Lombardi (the Pope’s spokesperson) said that the people in his hotel had said the same. Phew, what a relief.

An estimated three million people turned up for today’s World Youth Day closing mass on Copacobana beach (yes, more than when the Rolling Stones played a few years back). But is it really about numbers? No, said Fr Lombardi this afternoon. What really matters is how deeply the message of WYD penetrates.

In case anyone had forgotten the message over four very busy days, Pope Francis touched upon it during his homily at this morning’s mass “Go, do not be afraid and serve.”

He emphasised the importance of doing things together and not being alone, “When we face challenges together, then we are strong, we discover resources we did not know we had. Jesus did not call the Apostles to live in isolation, he called them to form a group, a community.”

World Youth Day gave a crash course in companionship to anyone not used to being with others. Last night millions packed on Copacobana beach to take part in an all night vigil. Many of them took their sleeping bags and slept there.

I asked Thierry, a pilgrim from France, as he was walking back to his hostel this afternoon if it was worth it, and he said: “It was the best night of my life! It was really worth it, there was just such a great sense of unity.”

The atmosphere in Rio has been electric over the past few days. There’s a real sense of energy and possibility. Pope Francis takes some kind of magic with him and melts hearts wherever he goes.

“I think it’s the start of something new,” said Ana, a Rio resident. “There’s a sense of hope and that things can change. The Pope can say anything and people will listen.”

Pope Francis will fly back to Rome (and a 40 degree heatwave) this evening and Rio will be given back Copacobana and start to return to normal.

In the meantime, Krakow better get cracking to find spaces big enough to host millions of pilgrims, because that’s where the next World Youth Day will be in 2016.