World Youth Day kicks off Aug. 16 in Madrid, Spain, with a projected record number of participants in a country with a distinctly Catholic history.
Despite the distance, many American young people plan a pilgrimage to join other Catholics from around the world for the event, whose theme is “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith (Colossians 2:7).”
Michael Hannon of the Office of Young Adult Outreach in the Archdiocese of New York attended World Youth Day in 2008 in Sydney and will accompany a group of nearly 50 to this year’s event.
“I had a great experience in Sydney — an awesome look at the next generation of the Church,” Hannon said. “I have similar hopes for Madrid, but I also know — especially because, this time, the primary language will not be English — that the experience will be unique. The people will be different; the country will be different. But I am confident God will continue to empower the youth of the Church through this event.”
Hannon’s group got together recently for a young-adult Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral celebrated by Father Vincent Druding, their World Youth Day chaplain.
The majority of the CatholicNYC group are from New York City parishes, but they will be joined by several people from as far away as Tennessee and Texas, Hannon said.
In addition to attending World Youth Day events, some members of Hannon’s group will attend a three-day retreat at the Dominican House of Studies, Hannon said.
While Hannon has experienced the impact of a previous World Youth Day, he knows that each person’s experience will be different: “The impact of the World Youth Day graces will obviously vary person to person, depending on where they are coming from and what they need to receive from God there. A few obvious rewards of attending World Youth Day, though, are the opportunity to witness the true universality of the Church firsthand and to encounter the Holy Father in person. Those will obviously be great opportunities for grace.”
The universality of the Church is on the mind of Deacon Jim Smith, who will lead a group from Oklahoma. Most of the group are members of Christ the King and St. Charles Borromeo parishes in the Oklahoma City area. The group will be accompanied by Father Rick Stansberry and Deacon Smith’s wife, Dori. Their pilgrimages will include stops in Rome and Assisi.
World Youth Day will hold special significance for this group, since their state’s population is only 5% Catholic, Smith predicts: “I hope they come away with the sense of the catholic-ness of the Church — how universal it is: to see other people who share this faith with them and how connected we are to everyone else on the planet. That’s what’s really important in life.”
Smith hopes that sharing the experience of World Youth Day with other young people will give participants a greater appreciation for Christ’s directive to love God and neighbor.
“Young people tend to get caught up in their own little world, as we all do,” Smith said. “Recognizing our connectedness and that we are all children of God is an important thing.”
The group will be in Europe for about two weeks, but the trip is not to be confused with a sightseeing trip. “I hope to make it as spiritual for the youth as possible,” Smith said. “We’re establishing up front that this is a spiritual journey.”
As he has done on mission trips, he hopes to gather at the end of each day to pose questions to his group that will help them focus on the purpose of the trip. “At other trips we’ve been on, I have asked questions like ‘Where did you see the face of Christ today?’” Smith explained.
Smith’s personal preparation for the pilgrimage has included reading about St. Francis of Assisi and the Church-related sites the group will visit.
Gabe Lynch, 18, of St. Mark the Evangelist parish in Norman, Okla., heard about the group’s World Youth Day plans at a church youth camp last summer. “The youth group director from Christ the King was at camp last year talking about it, and I said, ‘I want to go!’” Lynch recalled.
Remembering his brother Jamie’s enthusiasm for his own 2002 World Youth Day experience in Canada, Lynch asked if he could go along with the Oklahoma City group. “Since July of last year, when I first heard about it, I’ve been getting ready,” Lynch said. His earnings as a camp counselor and from his job at a restaurant in Norman, as well as a loan from his parish, have helped him fund the trip.
Lynch is looking forward to all of the World Youth Day events: “I’ve gone to the National Catholic Youth Conference, and just seeing so many Catholics there, I can just imagine what World Youth Day is going to be like.”
He has also been spiritually preparing by going to Mass and praying the Rosary daily.
The group has packed clothes that they will leave behind to be donated to charity in Spain. This will also leave room in their luggage for mementos of their pilgrimage.
Lynch and his Oklahoma travelers are just a few of the many American youth trekking to Spain. A group representing St. Denis in Versailles and Holy Family in nearby Frenchtown, Ohio, have been preparing for their journey with fundraising and spiritual preparation, according to coordinator of youth and young-adult ministry Michael Meyer.
The Ohio group will arrive first in Lisbon, Portugal, to tour Fatima, and then they will participate in the Days in the Diocese program through the Diocese of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Days in the Diocese, according to the official World Youth Day website (Madrid11.com/en), is “a cultural exchange in the context of faith” and “an excellent opportunity for the youth of the world to join local communities in prayer and celebration, to experience Spain beyond Madrid, to help renew the Church in the places they visit, and receive some Spanish hospitality.”
Once in Madrid, the group’s focus will be World Youth Day events. “In Madrid we attend the weekend activities, including the Way of the Cross, the U.S. delegation Mass and the all-night vigil,” Meyer said. (Note: World Youth Day highlights are just a click away. Along with the WYD website, the faithful can follow events on Twitter and YouTube. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also maintains a Facebook page for visitors to join in a “virtual pilgrimage.”)
Meyer’s hopes for the 15 young people and adults from the two Ohio parishes are in keeping with the theme of this year’s World Youth Day. “I think it will give them increased faith and ground them in the mission of the Church and the mission of Jesus Christ,” Meyer said.
Cindy Nestor of Silver Spring, Md., is taking a different route to World Youth Day. Unlike many of the American youth heading to Spain, she is not traveling with a parish or diocesan-sponsored group.
Nestor is already in Spain, visiting a friend and preparing for her first World Youth Day. “I figured this would be the best way to spend my summer: being with my friend, brushing up on my Spanish, and, most importantly, fulfilling my dream of attending World Youth Day,” Nestor said.
“I’m staying with my friend Blanca in Zaragoza. Her five other sisters and almost all of her cousins will meet up with us in Madrid.”
Nestor said of past WYD events: “It strikes me how many young people believe in my same faith. It reminds me that I am not alone in my struggles to keep the faith every day.”
For Nestor, the event benefits more than Catholic youth. “I think the events of World Youth Day will remind the Church that the youth not only participate in their faith, but also actively engage in it,” Nestor said. “It shows the world that the Catholic faith is alive. It shows that it is okay for young people to admit that they are Catholic and are proud.”
Laurie Ghigliotti writes from Atchison, Kansas.