RIO DE JANEIRO -- Frenzied crowds of Roman Catholics mobbed the car carrying Pope Francis on Monday when he returned to his home continent for the first time as pontiff, embarking on a seven-day visit meant to fan the fervor of the faithful around the globe.
During his first minutes in Brazil, ecstatic believers swarmed around the closed Fiat several times when it was forced to stop by heavy traffic on the drive from the airport to an official ceremony in Rio's center. A few security guards struggled mightily to push the crowd back in scenes that at times looked alarming. Church and city officials said the pope's driver turned into the wrong part of a boulevard and missed lanes that had been cleared.
Pope Francis looked calm during the frenzy. He rolled down the window on the car's back passenger side where he was sitting, waving to the crowd and touching those who reached inside. At one point, a woman handed the pontiff a dark-haired baby, whom he kissed before handing it back.
After finally making it past crowds and blocked traffic, the pontiff switched to an open-air popemobile as he toured around downtown Rio's main streets through mobs of people who screamed wildly as he waved and smiled. Many in the crowd looked stunned, some standing still and others sobbing loudly.
Idaclea Rangel, a 73-year-old Catholic, was pressed up against a wall and choking out words through her tears. "I can't travel to Rome, but he came here to make my country better ... and to deepen our faith," she said.
Anti-government protesters clashed with police outside a welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis, but the anger was directed at Brazilian leaders, not the pontiff.
At the airport earlier, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff vigorously shook Pope Francis' hand after he descended the stairs following a no-frills charter flight that arrived in late afternoon. The pope was handed two bouquets of white and yellow flowers by two adolescent girls, each of whom he kissed on the cheek.
Reaching the end of the red carpet full of church leaders and other dignitaries, Pope Francis and the Brazilian president paused to be serenaded by a choir of about three dozen young people singing an anthem linked to World Youth Day, an event uniting hundreds of thousands of young faithful from around the globe. Before singing, the kids robustly yelled soccer match-like chants in the pope's honor.
During the official welcoming ceremony later, the pontiff said he had come "to meet young people from all over the world" attracted by the messages of Jesus. "They want to find a refuge in his embrace, right near his heart to hear his call clearly and powerfully: 'Go and make disciples of all nations.' "
Outside the Guanabara government palace where the ceremony was held, Alicia Velazquez, a 55-year-old arts teacher from Buenos Aires, waited to catch a glimpse of the man she knew well when he was archbishop of her hometown. "It was so amazing when he was selected. We just couldn't believe it; we cried and hugged one another," she said. "I personally want to see if he's still the same man, as simple and humble, whom we all knew. I have faith that he's remained the same."
It was the first time the Argentine-born Francis returned to his home continent since his selection as pope in March. During his stay, the 76-year-old pope will meet with legions of young Catholics converging for the church's World Youth Festival in Rio. More than 1 million people are expected to pack the white sands of Copacabana for ceremonies at which Pope Francis will preside. He will also visit a tiny chapel in a trash-strewn slum and make a side trip to venerate Brazil's patron saint, Our Lady of Aparecida.
On the flight from Rome, Francis expressed concern for a generation of youth growing up jobless, as the world economy sputters. He warned about youth unemployment in some countries in the double digits, telling journalists there is a "risk of having a generation that hasn't worked. Young people at this moment are in crisis," he said.
He didn't specify any country or region, but much of Europe is seeing those gloomy youth joblessness numbers, especially in Greece, Spain and Italy. Brazil is in far better shape than European nations, with unemployment at an all-time low after a decade of economic expansion.
It would be easy for Francis if all Catholics shared the fervor of some of its younger members. But in Brazil and much of Latin America, a region with more faithful than any other in the world, millions have left the church for rival Pentecostal evangelical churches or secularism.
A poll from the respected Datafolha group, published Sunday in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, said 57 percent of Brazilians age 16 and older call themselves Catholic, the lowest ever recorded.
Six years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI visited, a poll by the same firm found 64 percent considered themselves among the faithful. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Brazil, 89 percent listed themselves as Catholics, according to that year's census.
Pentecostal evangelicals stood at 19 percent of the population in the latest poll, rising from virtually nothing three decades ago by aggressively proselytizing in Brazil's slums. Datafolha interviewed 3,758 people across Brazil on June 6-7 and said the poll had a margin error of 2 percentage points.
Playing out alongside the papal visit is political unrest in Brazil, where widespread anti-government protests that began last month have continued.