COLOGNE, Germany — They had to contend with many challenges — getting lost, losing their baggage, long waits, mice and cold weather, transportation problems, and sometimes a lack of food.
Still, nothing could dampen the spirit of the pilgrims in attendance at World Youth Day in Cologne. They accepted their difficulties as part of their pilgrimage and rose above them in their individual and collective experiences of Christ.
Maria Jang, 23, of Gwanju, South Korea, quit her job as a dental hygienist to attend World Youth Day. She was one of approximately 900 people from South Korea attending.
“I lost my luggage and didn't have a place to stay,” said Jang. “Seeing the Pope gave me strength. He is very happy. That makes me very happy.”
She ended up finding a room at a local hostel.
“The woman at the hostel told me I am a very lucky girl,” said Jang. “That helped me to realize that God is watching out for me.”
Jang wasn't alone.
Many pilgrims spoke of the challenges and struggles of being in a foreign country.
“After the Mass at Marienfeld, we were forced on buses and just dropped off in various places,” said Richard Drum of Brisbane, Australia. “We spent 40 Euro on a cab ride into Cologne.”
Still, Drum wasn't discouraged.
“We were encouraged to see so many other Catholics from around the world,” said Drum. “Being here is good, but it's testing as well.”
Adam Barberei recalled his encounter with a mouse at Marienfeld.
“This small brown mouse came up and looked at me and then left,” said Barberei.
“Four of the women in our group said they didn't think they could sleep there knowing that there were mice, but we told them they would stay near the garbage.”
He said that his group's original pilgrimage to the Cologne Cathedral wasn't ideal.
“The Cathedral was packed,” said Barberei. I didn't even know we were looking at the relics of the three Wise Men.”
So Barberei decided to return to the Cathedral on the evening of Aug. 21, once things had calmed down, for a second look.
There were also logistical struggles to contend with.
So many pilgrims descended upon the auditoriums for the opening Masses in Bonn, Cologne, and Düsseldorf that the transportation system broke down. As a result, thousands who wanted to attend the Masses were unable to.
A group from Australia didn't get their lunch or dinner on Aug. 16.
“We're on our own for dinner,” said seminarian Andrew Benton of Sydney. “It's about suffering, sacrifice and surrender.”
A pilgrim group of 24 sponsored by Catholic Aid Association, a fraternal benefits organization headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., got lost on its way to Düsseldorf, and also had a harrowing experience in the Cologne train station Aug. 17.
“We were trapped amidst a crowd of people in the train station for two hours. They weren't letting people get on the trains,” explained Father Gregory Mastey, who served as spiritual director for the group. “It felt like my lungs were being crushed.”
One of their group's members became ill after the experience and decided to forgo the Mass at Marienfeld. Members of the group don't regret coming.
The experiences have given the pilgrims something to laugh about.
“No matter where we're going, we say it's going to be three blocks. That could mean anything from three blocks to six miles,” said Michael McGovern, president of the Catholic Aid Association and one of the chaperones for the group. “At first the pilgrims felt they had to know everything, but eventually they got into the pilgrim mode.”
It was a journey of firsts for Gabriel Walz of Rockville, Minn., who accompanied the group. It was his first trip on an airplane, his first trip to Europe, his first World Youth Day, and his first time seeing the Pope up close. Walz described seeing the Pope as the highlight.
“We weren't going crazy because it was Joseph Ratzinger passing by,” said Walz. “We knew the man was the vicar of Christ. There is something special in who he represents.”
Even those who admitted that they felt they didn't know the man said that they felt he was meeting the task before him.
“He has to prove himself,” said Martin of Rotterdam, Netherlands. “I think he is doing well.”