By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Ah, Rio.
The sun. The sand. The absolution.
Often, tourists and travelers leave this hedonist hotspot with a feeling of guilt. This week, however, thousands of young visitors are dropping to their knees and asking for forgiveness.
Never mind that they might still fall prey to the temptations of the famous nightclubs, bars and beaches of the coastal metropolis, let alone the allure of the many other young pilgrims gathered here for a week long visit by Pope Francis.
As part of the ongoing World Youth Day gathering, a Catholic confab that has attracted more than 1 million faithful to Rio de Janeiro, the Church is making it easy for sinners to seek forgiveness at 100 makeshift outdoor confessionals. The white plywood structures, in a regimented array resembling a tent camp, await the contrite at two focal points of the gathering.
Shaped like the mountain atop which the city's Christ the Redeemer monument looms large, the confessionals are staffed by polyglot priests from around the world. On Friday, Pope Francis himself is scheduled to tend to a few penitents at the Quinta da Boa Vista, a park north of central Rio where the confessionals sit amid hot-dog stands and popcorn vendors.
Confession is a central rite of Catholicism.
By confessing their sins to priests, Catholics not only discuss and reflect upon wrongdoing, they receive a penance through which they seek contrition and make themselves worthy of mass and other rituals.
"It's a way to get closer to God and we as priests have to facilitate the process," said Juan Gabriel Guerra, a Mexican priest now living in the U.S. state of Georgia and who this week is hearing confessions in Spanish and English.
The practice reflects the inherent conflict that most religions grapple with: People may really want to be good, but they have a mighty hard time toeing the line.
Francis himself, like many other Christian leaders, frequently counts himself among the sinners. A Christian, Francis said during a June mass at the Vatican, must "make this confession to himself and to the Church" in order to "understand the beauty of salvation."
Despite heavy rains and temperatures dipping well below the seasonal average, hundreds of young Catholics have waited in line to seek salvation this week. At the Rio park, signs along the muddy lawn where the confessionals sit segregate pilgrims by the language in which they choose to confess - from the local Portuguese to more distant Polish, German and French.
"This is way cooler than confession in a church," says Elise Johnson, a 20-year-old design student from Seattle, who last confessed eight months ago. She was inspired to do so here because of the energy of the assembled youth and the ambience of the outdoors, she added.
For the priests, who are working two-hour shifts seated behind the white screen where each penitent kneels, the occasion presents an opportunity to harness the enthusiasm of the gathering, especially because many Catholics have trouble finding time to confess regularly. The problem is compounded by a shortage of priests worldwide, making schedules at confessionals in some local parishes a hit-or-miss affair.
"It should be something natural, something you want to do," said Ademir Alves, a Brazilian priest from the central state of Goias. "Each confession helps you find your way back to God."
Noelia Meza, a 28-year-old Argentine, said she decided to re-embrace Catholicism only recently, after a breakup with a longtime boyfriend and some trouble with a part-time job.
"I just feel the need to share what I've done," she said.
She emerged from the confessionals just past dark on Wednesday, after most of the priests and other remorseful had already filed out and walked toward a Catholic rock concert on a nearby stage. Her long lapse away from the Church, she said, means that she has rarely bared her soul since her first confession two decades ago.
"I still have a lot to tell," Meza explained, noting a long mental list she has of her sins, from the biggest misdeeds down to the minor. She declined to detail her list.
Some said the confessionals are opportune considering the extracurricular activities some of the pilgrims are bound to enjoy while in Rio.
"There's some partying, too," said Estevão Ostrowsky, a 23-year-old fashion student from the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. "These are really convenient."
(Editing by Todd Benson and Cynthia Osterman)