RIO DE JANEIRO — When 15-year-old Alina Ramos heard about World Youth Day in July 2012, she made it a priority to attend.
It didn’t matter that Ramos, a Mexican-American from Raleigh, N.C., didn’t have a job or the financial situation at the time to even consider paying for her trip.
At a cost of $4,000 for the WYD trip, a week in Rio de Janeiro can lighten even the fattest pocketbooks. For Ramos’ family, and many others in the congregation at St. Michael the Archangel Church, such a figure is financially unimaginable without support.
But when St. Michael the Archangel offered a WYD sponsorship contest last fall, Ramos immediately entered.
Ramos would have to present an idea for the parish to improve its ministry and beat out other youth from among the group’s 30 members.
After developing an idea to create a shared event calendar between St. Michael the Archangel’s English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members, Ramos prepared her presentation for the December 2012 competition.
But as her presentation date neared, Ramos’ grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer in Mexico.
“We had to go down to take care of her,” explained Ramos. “She was really sick at the time.”
Though Ramos was determined to see Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro, she almost had to put her dreams on hold. While in Mexico, Ramos contacted Julio, the leader of her youth group, and dictated her presentation via Skype until he had perfected it. The 21-year-old agreed to present it for her.
Then, according to Ramos, God took over.
“My idea was the only one in the competition,” she said, “so I won by default.”
Still unsure of the her sponsorship’s size, Ramos figured St. Michael the Archangel would help pay for a meaningful percentage of WYD’s costs. Five months later, in April, she learned the church couldn’t pay for any of it.
“I kept asking about it,” she insisted. “And in April they told me they didn’t have any money to give me.”
Working together with her parish, Ramos was given donations from a second collection made during one Sunday in May after each Mass.
Her Own Fundraiser
When it became apparent that the second collection money alone wasn’t going to cover the costs, Ramos got to work on her own fundraiser.
Last month, in June, Ramos stayed one Sunday for all five of St. Michael the Archangel’s Masses, collecting signatures on t-shirts and asking for modest donations in return for prayer at World Youth Day.
“I’d ask our parishioners if they’d be interested in helping one of our youth attend World Youth Day, she said. “And when they asked who the youth was, I’d tell them it was me.”
Ramos collected nearly $1,300 in donations from her t-shirt sales and other small fundraisers, filling four shirts’ worth of signatures, and helping to fund the final costs of attending World Youth Day.
Of the 20,000 parishioners at St. Michael the Archangel, Ramos was set to be the lone member to represent the parish in Rio de Janeiro.
But on Friday, July 19, Ramos’ grandmother passed away, leaving the now 16-year-old with yet another decision just three days before her WYD dream was fulfilled.
Speaking in front of her church congregation the next day, Ramos thanked parishioners for their donations and support and reaffirmed she’d still be travelling to WYD — in their honor.
“I told them I appreciated everything they had done and that I’m going for them,” said Ramos, calling herself a messenger. “It’s a pilgrimage. It’s going to be hard; it has been hard. But I want all of their intentions brought to Pope Francis. They’re here with me spiritually.”
Journeys of Courage and Sacrifice
Ramos’ story is one of many authentic journeys of courage and sacrifice made by Rio’s pilgrims from both the United States and around the world.
From Poland, 21-year-old Jakub Rusek is attending his second WYD. After receiving scholarship grants from his home city of Mikolow to attend WYD 2011 in Madrid, Rusek needed to raise his own funds to make it to Rio.
To do so, Rusek, a full-time college student, picked up a job at McDonald’s. Working 25 hours per week for a full year leading up to WYD 2013, Rusek set aside his entire earnings from McDonald’s to cover the cost of volunteering in Rio.
“I want to feel the emotion and unity of the Church’s youth,” said Rusek. “I want to hear the new Pope. It’s an amazing experience to be here, and I would do anything to take part in it.”
As a Polish translator, Rusek and four other Polish volunteers manage the official Polish Facebook and Twitter pages of WYD, translating news releases and WYD updates from Portuguese and English to Polish.
Perhaps the most incredible story comes from a group of 30 pilgrims in Pamatai, Tahiti, a small island with a population of 300,000 in French Polynesia. Led by 46-year-old Cyril Li, a four-time WYD participant who works as a computer engineer and volunteer radio host, Tahiti youth aged 16-32 worked for two years washing cars and cooking in soup kitchens to make their one-week WYD dreams a reality.
“Sometimes they didn’t even have holidays,” said Li of his group’s dedication. “They worked every Saturday, all of them together.”
The flight alone cost $3,000 per person, according to Li, and the trip from Tahiti to Rio de Janeiro took a total of 53 hours from start to finish.
Although Li admits his group was disappointed with the amount of visible poverty in the city’s favelas, he said group trips to Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue and the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Sebastian set the stage for Pope Francis’ arrival.
“They’ve been working hard for two years for this, and they’re overcome with emotion,” he said.
Pray With the Pope!
Among the two dozen Tahitian youth, most speak both French and Polynesian languages. In a broken English exclamation made by one of the group’s members, the goal of their pilgrimage, and that of many who sacrificed to attend WYD, was made clear:
“We came to pray with the Pope!”
Register correspondent Chris Kudialis filed this report from World Youth Day Rio.