Catholic youths ham it up for a photograph in front of a sand sculpture of Pope Francis on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. The group traveled to Brazil for World Youth Day.


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Thousands of young Roman Catholics from around the Americas are converging on Rio de Janeiro, taking long bus trips or expensive plane flights paid for by baking cookies or holding garage sales, running raffles and bingo tournaments and even begging for coins in public plazas.

Some of the poorest traveled from so-called "misery villages" in Argentina's capital, thanks to donations from the Buenos Aires archdiocese. Their agenda at World Youth Day includes meeting with other disadvantaged youngsters in Manguinhos, a favela Pope Francis plans to visit, and sharing stories about Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the subway-riding Argentine Jesuit they now affectionately call their "slum pope."

Road trips can be fun, but many have expressed more profound emotions, excited by the changes they see in the church since Francis was elected in March. His first months as pope renewed their faith, many say, by showing how church leaders can get closer to their people and relate to their real-world problems with humor and a common touch.

"Like anyone else, there have been times when I haven't had this faith at 100 percent. Now I have more faith than ever, very high. I have my heart completely with God and no one can take me away from there," said Valentina Godoy, who traveled from Santiago, Chile, and shared her feelings from Brazil on a video her local church group posted on YouTube.

Francis joked when he first emerged on the balcony over St. Peters Square that the cardinals had chosen a pope "from the end of the world." But for many Catholics on this side of the Atlantic, he's not only the first Latin American pope. With his history of community outreach, many younger Catholics are saying that he's the first pope they can relate to in a more personal way.

"We were concerned after Benedict resigned, but when a Latin American pope emerged, so close to young people, it really changed the situation and our numbers grew," said Alonso Molina, 21, a coordinator of a group visiting from Chile's Vicarate of Youthful Hope.

"A little while ago we thought that there would be 5,000 Chileans and now we see that 9,100 of us are going, more than double what we expected."

Hundreds of young Catholics left Buenos Aires cathedral Friday night in a caravan of buses on the 40-hour, 1,500-mile trip to Rio. Many others left earlier from provinces around Argentina. About 9,500 signed up from the United States; 5,000 from Paraguay and 4,500 from Mexico.

In all, 350,000 young Catholics signed up, similar to previous World Youth Days that later attracted much larger crowds. In any case, Brazilian authorities are prepared to receive a million or more visitors during the pope's weeklong stay.

Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world and its church has struggled to compete with Latin America's evangelical Christian movements, so it's a logical destination. And while many Argentines were disappointed Francis didn't choose his native Argentina for his first papal trip outside Italy, they made the best of it: More than 30,000 Argentines were doing the pilgrimage, the largest foreign delegation.

That includes President Cristina Fernandez, who cast aside her political rivalry with the former Buenos Aires cardinal after he became pope, and plans to make more displays of affection this week. While Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff invited South American leaders to the final Mass on July 29, Fernandez also plans to attend Monday's opening ceremony, Argentina's Catholic News Agency reported.