World Youth Day is an experience of the universality of the Catholic Church. 

In other words, you can be walking down the street with a person of a different culture, while at the same time listening to him or her speaking in a different language, but still have a deep sense that, ultimately, we believe, pray and hopefully live the Christian faith in the same way. 

In the midst of enormous crowds from all around the world, we all profess the same creed. 

This is a profound experience for a young person, who has only been exposed to his or her local diocese or maybe even only his or her own small parish church. 

The Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro became a broader parish experience for millions of young people from all around the world. 

Said Pope Francis, “Rio has become the heart of the Church.”

Some may be familiar with the expression that “Rome is the heart of the Church.” This has deep roots in the Latin axiom “Ubi petrus ubi ecclesia” (Where Peter is, there is the Church). Indeed, St. Peter’s successor, Pope Francis, was present to millions of young people over a seven-day trip. 

It is safe to say that the pulse of the Church could be felt in Rio de Janeiro during those days.

As a new priest, I had a different experience than at previous World Youth Days. I attended WYD 2002 in Toronto, while Blessed Pope John Paul II was still alive. It was there that I started to hear a call to the consecrated life and to serve the Lord as a Franciscan. Two years later, I would join the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. 

In 2008, several weeks before I began my theology studies, I had the privilege of attending WYD in Sydney. There, I encountered Pope Benedict XVI — and was no more than 10 feet away from him as he entered to celebrate Mass for seminarians and consecrated religious. And now, I was blessed to be in Rio with Pope Francis, the first pope from the Americas.

Someone recently brought to my attention that my formation to become a priest was under three different popes — Blessed Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. You may be thinking, “How long did it take you to become a priest?” Thirteen years! But that’s a whole different story. What a blessing it has been for me to have three different popes during my preparation for the priesthood!

During this World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, I had the experience that I was living out exactly what the Lord had created me to be. 

As we were awaiting Pope Francis to welcome the young people on Thursday evening, I was standing at the media tent — on the second floor, where EWTN was doing commentary — as the Pope was slowly making his way down the street alongside Copacabana beach. 

As I was gazing out at the crowds, I began to have a sense that I had something in common with this new Pope. 

I began to think that the greatest thing that Pope Francis does is to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — to make Jesus Christ present in the midst of his people and to re-present the Sacrifice of Calvary in an unbloody manner for the salvation of the world.

I began to think, “Wait — I am a priest now, and I have been given the sacred power and privilege to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” It was a moment that I will never forget.

Working with EWTN, I had the chance to read and comment on some of Pope Francis’ addresses and homilies. I had the impression that he was speaking directly to me! This was not the first time I had experienced this with a pope. The same thing happened in Toronto, with Blessed Pope John Paul II; in Sydney, with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI; and now in Rio de Janeiro, with Pope Francis.

Many people commented on how the message transcended an age requirement. 

No wonder — it was the Gospel of Jesus Christ that was being proclaimed. 

The Gospel is for everyone, period.

I am sure that many seeds were planted and stirred up within the hearts of many young people to consider a possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life during those extraordinary days in Rio. 

I felt as if the seed that had been planted at my baptism — and stirred up again and strengthened by my confirmation and that had been cultivated and nourished throughout my life by receiving the sacraments of penance and the holy Eucharist — had been brought to fruition now as a priest of Jesus Christ. My mission in life is clear.

It is the greatest gift and privilege of my life to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Thank you, Blessed John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis for your fatherly guidance and example. I am grateful beyond words.

Father John Paul Mary Zeller is

a Franciscan Missionary

of the Eternal Word.