Members of the media had somber predictions about the Holy Father’s visit to the United States, just as they do about his July 15-20 visit to World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia.
What will the 81-year-old Pope have to say to a generation of media-savvy youth whose role models are worldly celebrities?
His meeting with youth and seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., on April 19 was a kind of preview of World Youth Day.
Alice von Hildebrand, author and host of several EWTN shows, whose husband Dietrich was a personal friend of the Holy Father, said she knows the secret of Pope Benedict’s appeal to the young: “What is so beautiful about him is, there is a tremendous goodness in this Holy Father, and this is what young people need to know: that they are loved.”
Teens told me the same thing.
“I know Pope Benedict has done a lot for the people, and I know he cares. I want to see him and get a better understanding of who he is,” said nursing student Sherry Ann Frizeau. “My Catholic faith means always behaving in a way that reflects that God has a presence in my life; how I interact with my friends, always lending a helping hand, and going to church every Sunday.”
Amanda Fiumefreddo, 15, had high hopes for seeing the Holy Father: “When he comes out, I hope I really get something out of it, I want to connect with him.”
Her mother Cathy said, “I really feel a strong connection. It’s important to get the word out because there are many religious children who want to be here, and are faithful children. Not all teenagers are what you see all over the TV. Look at all these young people who want to say prayers with the Pope. We all want to walk away blessed, and feel strong in our faith.”
Joe Clark, 14, whose father is on his parish council and whose mother teaches parish catechism classes, said, “I’m excited to see the Holy Father; he’s the head of our Church, and my friends were impressed that I was going. Some of them are here, too.”
Victor Morales, 14, said young people aren’t afraid of the faith. They practice it, question it, and defend it.
“I’m an altar server, and I assist with my mother’s CCD class. My friends at school have friendly arguments about the differences in our faith.”
The Holy Father’s U.S. visit was like a preview of World Youth Day in another way, too.
Victor’s parents are from Mexico, and he talked about the Holy Father’s outreach to the Hispanic community in the United States.
“The four marks of the Church from the Nicene Creed are ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic,’ and ‘catholic’ means universal, so, we are all one family in the faith. God created the earth, He didn’t create the borders. We have a stronger tie to the Virgin Mary, as La Virgen de Guadalupe, and the tradition of Las Posadas. My father did it in his village in Mexico, and our family did it one year.”
Despite all that, Victor is every bit a child of modern America. When asked what he thought the Holy Father would say, Victor replied, “I think he’s pro-environment, and he’s probably going to say something about preserving the environment; it’s kind of up to us.”
After the youth rally at Dunwoodie, the exuberant crowd leaving the seminary walked down John Paul II Boulevard, flowing down the street like a shaken bottle of champagne, in an impromptu parade.
Sydney will be seeing the same phenomenon soon.
The commotion brought out the neighbors to smile at the spirited crowd. When they reached town, hungry teens spilled into local eateries, and dozens of Dominican sisters in white habits filled the local ice cream parlor, creating a sensation.
The rally’s participants reflected on their experiences.
Gabriela Velasquez, 14, said, “My first impression of Pope Benedict was that no one could be as sincere and connected with youth as Pope John Paul, but by everyone’s reaction, I think that he touched their hearts in a special way that no one thought he would.
“As the Pope arrived at Dunwoodie, I had no idea that there was going to be so much noise. I mean, every time he said something, there was a wave of screaming people and fluttering scarves that went from one side of the field to the other. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget, and I would totally do it again if I had the chance.”
Christen O’Brien Russell, 18, of New Rochelle, N.Y., was there with her brother Donald and sister Caileen, both 15.
She said, “I feel sometimes that it is hard to be a Catholic in this day and age. Just looking around me and seeing hundreds and hundreds of people, people my own age around me, all here for the same reason, to see the Pope, seeing all these people so excited and so filled with love for him, I thought, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’ I felt less alone. It makes me more secure in my faith and in who I am.”
Donald’s brother said, “When the Pope arrived, you could feel his presence through the people there. Everyone went crazy. It was so exciting to see everyone cheering for the Pope.” Donald added, “It was a great time for the Pope to come. Our world is in bad shape. We needed it.”
Caileen remarked, “It was very moving to see all those people coming together to see the Pope. It was surreal. I felt so honored to be a part of it. I always loved being Catholic. Now, I feel even better about being Catholic.”
Christopher Bordonaro, 17, said, “The Holy Father is the biggest earthly idol I have. When my friend told me I got a ticket to see him, it was the best news I ever got. Being within 200 feet of him was awesome. I liked that he spoke about the difficulties of life in a public school, worldly environment and gave us different ways to stand up for what you believe in. I like that he mentioned how God has been removed from the public schools in the aspect of the creation of the world.”
Chris has read Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and is well versed in aspects of intelligent design.
John Keck, 13, said, “You would never think there was shortage of priests and seminarians because there were so many of them there.”
John had just visited his cousin Bryan Gray, a minor seminarian at Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Centre Harbor, N.H., during the Easter games and met many seminarians.
“Bryan has always wanted to be a priest. He has a yearning for the priesthood,” said Eileen Keck, John’s mother. “John left the seminary with a burden on his heart to pray for vocations, and we were all impressed with the enthusiasm of the seminarians at the rally. It was their day.”
Thousands of youth and seminarians have incorporated the memory of the papal rally into their experiences as young Catholics in the United States. What will be the fruit of this meeting with the Successor of St. Peter?
One encouraging sign has already appeared: In the week following the rally, St. Joseph’s Seminary has received dozens of letters inquiring about vocations. Expect that phenomenon again after Sydney.
Father Justin Semanti, whose youth group, Holy Rosary in the Bronx, plans to attend World Youth Day, was encouraged by the “preview.”
“It was a great event here with the Holy Father, and it was encouraging to see all these young people here with the Pope, showing their love and devotion to him and the Church,” he said. “Just a real springtime, I think, to bring this about in New York and to all of America. It’s a really exciting and encouraging time to be a Catholic, to be a young person in the Church today.”
Leticia Velasquez writes from East Moriches, New York.