Flashback to April, 2012… My phone buzzes with a text from a church friend, and I swipe the screen to see the words that started it all: “World Youth Day 2013’s gonna be in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and we’re gonna be there!”
After hearing story after story and listening to testimony after testimony, I realized that World Youth Day was a time when faith was strengthened, when vocations were revealed, and when hearts were set on fire for God. And now, I wouldn’t just be reading about the miracles—I would be experiencing them for myself. My faith would be strengthened, my vocation would be revealed and my heart would be set on fire for God!
Before I knew it, July 16th, 2013 rolled around, and I found myself in Holly, Michigan alongside seventy Jesus Youth. This was my first time experiencing Jesus Youth in such large numbers, and I found myself awe-struck at the friendliness, compassion, and humility of these young men and women. We spent the three hottest days of the summer living together in humid, bug-filled cabins, where we participated in ice-breakers, discussed our World Youth Day expectations, and grew in friendship and faith.
From Detroit, we headed out to Sau Paulo, Brazil. Not only was the city a mirror image of Kerala, India, but the people were also friendly and hospitable. None of us were well-versed in
Portuguese, but we managed to make do with our amateur Spanish skills and hand-gestures. Upon arriving, we joined a group of 700 Catholics from all around the world to celebrate the Youth Arise Festival, a three-day period of singing, praising, and Catechism sessions. The atmosphere was one of peace and prayer, nourished by Holy Hours, daily Adoration, and concerts by Rexband, Masterplan, and Matt Maher. Whether it was playing Ninja with the Brazilians or singing through the streets for the midnight candlelight vigil, the presence of God was visible through it all.
The beautiful weather changed soon after we reached Rio de Janeiro; we went from warm sunshine to grey skies and heavy clouds, complete with rain and wind that really made me wish I had packed more than one sweatshirt. In Rio, our group of Jesus Youth America joined Jesus Youth from ten different countries, including United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and United Kingdom. Our mornings consisted of a two Kilometer trek over two hills for breakfast, morning prayers, and Catechism sessions with English-speaking cardinals. We were privileged enough to hear a session from America’s very own Cardinal Timothy Dollan, and his words were both inspiring and humbling. Even more touching was his humility; in those few hours that cardinal Dolan was with us, he basically asked for the prayers and blessing of every priest there! This simple small gesture spoke volumes to the youth present. Next, our afternoons were a bit more chaotic. After squeezing our way into trains and metros, we would seek out a restaurant that offered food to WYD pilgrims, a feat that often took hours. Afterwards, we would head to Copacabana Beach in the hopes of hearing Pope Francis speak. The sheer numbers of people present on the streets and on the beach was testament to the strength, passion, and zeal of our Catholic faith—for me, that in and of itself was both heartening and inspiring.
The fourth day in Rio, the day of the long awaited night vigil, was a break from the norm—we headed out at eight in the morning on a seven km walk to the beach, carrying our sleeping bag, backpack, and forty-eight hours worth of food. Due to some delays in food and traffic, the what-should-have-been three hour stretch turned into eight hours, and evening found us searching for a place to sleep amongst 3.7 million others. We managed to secure spots next to some very hospitable Brazilians and were able to settle down in time to participate in a powerful Adoration led by Pope Francis. It was a Christ-encountering experience for many. Sleep came easy later that night, and we were blessed enough to rise to a striking sunrise—a beautiful way to start the Closing Ceremonies with Pope Francis. Looking back, my mind falls blank when I try to think of a word that may capture my entire World Youth Day experience. I don’t know if World Youth Day changed who I am. I don’t know if I am a different person because of it. But I do know that I believe in Jesus Christ. I know that our God is real—because I saw Him in the songs and laughter of the countless pilgrims, because I saw Him in the sufferings of Brazil’s homeless, because I saw Him in the brotherhood and sisterhood of Jesus Youth. I believe that I am a daughter of God, that He loves me, and that I have a purpose in this life. I believe in the love behind the words of Pope Francis when he said, “You too, dear young people, can be joyful witnesses of His love, courageous witnesses of His Gospel, carrying to this world a ray of His light.”
Be the joy. Be the courage. Be the light. Let’s make some disciples.