WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims from all over the world converged on Rio de Janeiro to join Pope Francis for World Youth Day, but for many of these youth, the road to Rio will also put them on the road to the priesthood or religious life.
Many priests and religious credit the Holy Spirit with awakening or confirming their vocations through World Youth Day pilgrimages.
"It was a watershed moment," said Father Jeffrey Gubbiotti, describing the impact his first World Youth Day had on his own vocation. A 17-year-old pilgrim at WYD 1993 in Denver, he had not thought much of a vocation or much about Catholic life outside his own parish.
However, seeing the "universality of the Church" awakened in him the realization that he could give his life to Christ. He recalled that seeing Pope John Paul II and the pilgrims from countries all over the world gathered together in prayer "transfigured" the Church in his eyes.
"The Holy Spirit showed me something bigger and transcendent going on here," he said. What’s more, he saw the witness of young priests and religious not so distant in age from him.
"That opened my eyes. I saw they were real people," said Father Gubbiotti, now pastor of the Church of the Assumption in Ansonia, Conn. "I finally could identify it as a real possibility in my life."
Sisters Spun From WYD
Before going to 2000 WYD in Rome, Sister of Life Antoniana Maria said she had plans to protect the environment.
"I really wanted to make a difference in the world," she recalled. At 19 years old, she was getting her degree in environmental studies from the University of British Columbia. "I was thinking, ‘I know what God’s plan is; it is my plan!’"
Praying before the Eucharist in a WYD adoration chapel, she experienced the Holy Spirit calling her in a different direction: to care for post-abortive women and pregnant women in need with the Sisters of Life in New York City.
"The Lord proposed to my heart," she said. Now the vocations director for the Sisters of Life in New York, Sister Antoniana said a third of the order’s 70 sisters have cited WYD as a factor in their vocation.
Sister Veronica can also attest that adoring the Eucharistic Christ during exposition with Pope Benedict at the 2005 WYD in Cologne, Germany, proved decisive in her own decision to become a contemplative nun.
"That really struck me: to adore Jesus with the Holy Father," Sister Veronica said. While the witness of many priests, religious and laypeople impressed her, one person’s words struck a chord with her.
"I remember one young man from England on fire with the faith, and his last words he shared with me were, ‘Have courage; Jesus has a mission for you.’"
The next year, she joined the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Ala.
Skateboarder to Priest
The Lord also plants the seeds of vocation at World Youth Day in mysterious ways, and that certainly applies to the vocation of Father Peter Mussett, pastor of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
At 16 years old, Peter Mussett’s involvement at the 1993 youth gathering differed greatly from the flood of pilgrims in his hometown of Denver: Two weeks before WYD, he and his friends found a bunch of World Youth Day yard signs and stole them for fun.
The skateboarding punk rocker also took out one reporter’s WYD coverage when he crashed his 1968 Mustang convertible right into the trunk of the reporter’s car, destroying all his equipment.
"I came to my vocation in kind of a strange way," Father Mussett admitted.
But when he learned most of the neighborhood was Catholic and heading out to see the Pope, Father Mussett then asked his father to get him a ticket so he could also see John Paul II at the papal Mass.
Caught up in the excitement and feeling "religiously Catholic" as he walked with the pilgrims to go to Mass with the Pope, a "very powerful moment" occurred.
"My heart just went into my stomach," he recalled. "I realized the signs I had stolen were the same ones leading people to [the WYD Mass at] Cherry State Park. I thought, ‘I had led all these people astray!’"
His friends invited him to smoke pot with them at the portable toilets, but, instead, the teen stuck with the pilgrims.
"I ended up meeting some real Christians, people who were really willing to pour out the love of the Lord toward me," Father Mussett said. "It was a small seed of my vocation, but it was a very important moment."
Six years later, with the Holy Spirit planting many other seeds along the way, including a moral conversion in college, Father Mussett joined the first class of the new St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver in 1999.
He and his friends still have the stolen WYD sign they all signed their names onto.
One in Five Vocations
According to the most recent studies done for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 25% of new religious making their professions reported they had participated in a World Youth Day. Also 20% of newly ordained priests in the Class of 2013 said they went to a WYD before entering the seminary.
"It’s quite incredible," said Father Shawn McKnight, executive director the USCCB Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. "A small percentage of our Catholic youth go to a World Youth Day, but 20% of those getting ordained have been to one. So it obviously has an impact."
The organizers of this year’s World Youth Day hope that the Rio event will prove as fruitful as previous ones, in terms of fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
"Want to discover your vocation, the calling God has for you?" asks a webpage on the official WYD website providing information about the event’s Vocation Fair, which was located at the Quinta da Boa Vista WYD site. "The Vocation Fair could be the perfect place for you to encounter the will of God."
The webpage states that almost 150 religious congregations and new communities were expected to be represented at the Vocations Fair.
To ensure these congregations and communities were accessible to pilgrims, WYD organizers specified that they must be working internationally, not merely locally, and have representatives available who speak other languages as well as Brazil’s native Portuguese.
The seeds of vocation planted by the Holy Spirit at World Youth Day, however, need watering through prayer and support from the returning pilgrim’s community, Father Gubbiotti said.
"It’s easy for this to be just a flash-in-the-pan experience," he recalled. "So it’s very wise to seize on that energy."
His pastor followed up on his teenage zeal by urging him to exercise his gifts and talents in a youth evangelization group. He said that made all the difference in nourishing his vocation.
But, ultimately, Father Gubbiotti said pilgrims in Rio searching for God’s call for their lives should think of it as a pilgrimage and take it one step at a time.
"The best question I ever asked in my life was not: ‘What do you want me to do with my life, God?’ but was: ‘What is the next step you want me to take?’"
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.