Events include an opening Mass on Copacabana beach for pilgrims, Catholic DJs spinning records at a beach festival, and a final Mass that is open to the public at a giant field west of the city.
Benjamin Paz Vernal, director of communications for World Youth Day communications said for the week they have ordered 4 million hosts for Holy Communion.
Paz Vernal said site where the final Mass will be held is 2 1/2 times bigger than that of the last World Youth Day in 2011. At that Mass, Spain’s National Police estimated the crowd was 1.5 million people.
The pope will be busy in Brazil: and it’s a typical itinerary for Francis.
He will visit a drug rehabilitation hospital, a Marian shrine, hear confessions from young inmates, and tour a slum in Rio de Janiero that the Vatican notes was “recently pacified.”
But what everyone will be watching is what is not what on the itinerary from a pope who seems to relish improvisation.
“I’ve utterly given up trying to figure out what he’s going to do,” said the Rev. Paddy Gilger a newly ordained Jesuit priest who runs the website “The Jesuit Post.”
In Francis he sees a pope unafraid to push the boundaries and keep his minders – as well as the media -- on their toes.
“It’s very Jesuit: whatever it takes,” Gilger said. “He’s unafraid to use any tool he can to share the gospel. If it wasn’t so sincere it’d be very manipulative.”
Back to the clown Masses?
Francis’ style is not without critics, most notably in his approach to worship.
When he first stepped out on the balcony to meet the world as pope, Francis wore a simple iron cross instead of one made from gold. The throne of St. Peter has literally been stripped of its jewels and the brocaded papal cape left with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In its place: a simple white cassock.
“Benedict, in his relatively short papacy of eight years, worked very hard to bring back a lot of things that were identified with Catholicism. With the Vatican it was splendor, it was dignity,” Kenneth Wolfe a writer for traditionalist Catholic publications such as Rorate Caeli.
“Francis is more of a … American Protestant,” he said with a sigh. “Not in beliefs but in demeanor and approach to religion. Dressing as one of the people.”
The pope’s trip to Lampedusa was charitable, Wolfe said, but the Mass there summed up what Wolfe dislikes about Francis.
“The Mass was pretty much a joke. I mean to have an altar made out of a boat, a wooded chalice, a lectern that had a ship’s steering wheel on it and altar girls?” he said. “It resembles the clown Masses of the 1960s. It’s not a serious way to present liturgy.”
After the Second Vatican Council, Latin was dropped from the Masses in favor of local languages, opening the door for a host of new hymns and practices, some of which traditionalists derisively refer to as “clown Masses.”
And, as Wolfe notes, it also opened the door for Masses that featured actual clowns.
“I would be lying if I said I hadn’t seen a little disgruntledness,” Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Association said about the response to Pope Francis.
But the distaste is limited and mostly concerns matters of liturgy, according to McGuire.
“The overwhelming response has been positive,” she said.
The path forward
When he returns to the Vatican after World Youth Day, the new pope will finally have some down time, the Vatican said.
But Francis still has an ambitious to-do list – and no one expects the 76-year-old to slow down.
In fact, he’s already pledged to reform everything from the Vatican bank to the Curia, the professional staff at the Vatican.
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, offered some insight into why the pope has been so busy.
“The clock is ticking. He’s got one lung. You’d better do it now.”