Pope Francis urged Catholics to resist the “ephemeral idols” of money, power and pleasure in celebrating the first public Mass of his initial international foreign journey as pontiff during an emotional visit to one of the most important shrines in Latin America.

Thousands packed into the cavernous Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, tucked into an agricultural region of verdant fields halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo, and tens of thousands more braved a cold rain outside to catch a glimpse of the first Pope from the Americas returning to a shrine of great meaning to the continent and him personally.

Before the Mass, the Pope stood in silent prayer before the 15-inch-tall image of the Virgin of Aparecida, the “Black Mary”, his eyes tearing up as he breathed heavily. It was a deeply personal moment for this pontiff, who has entrusted his papacy to the Virgin Mary and, like many Catholics in Latin America, places great importance in Marian devotion.

During his homily, he urged Catholics to keep their values of faith, generosity and fraternity, a message he was expected to repeat later in the day during a visit to a drug rehabilitation centre in Rio de Janeiro.

The church is struggling in Latin America to keep Catholics from straying to evangelical and Pentecostal churches that often promise help in finding material wealth, an alluring attraction in a poverty-wracked continent. Francis’ top priority as pope has been to reach out to the world’s poor and inspire Catholic leaders to go to slums and other peripheries to preach. — AP