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Rambling Pilgrim (My Blogspot for World Youth Day 2013, Rio)

This blog is an account of my experiences in Rio de Janeiro during World Youth Day, 2013.

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The WYD pilgrims have been commissioned

Last night it began.

Well, if you can call a sending forth blessing from Bishop da Cunha of Newark Archdiocese a beginning, then it's fair enough to say it began. Then again, if that counts as a beginning, so can the moment I officially decided to go to Rio for World Youth Day seven months ago, and so can the moment I made the first deposit in my savings account for the pilgrimage, or when I finally paid the full $4,000, or when we started actually hosting fundraisers for the trip, or when I finally received my visa.

I guess there are still a few solidifying events that still remain ahead which also can count as beginnings, like driving to the airport July 21, landing in Rio the next morning, and then starting to see the other pilgrims from around the world who will be incredulous at the same time as I because they'll realize they've finally arrived.

It's hard to find a true beginning really, because so much has already gone into this event, so many demands tug at us for attention, so many go-aheads, wait-a-seconds, 'do you have this and that's, 'did you do that and this'es, all pushing to be top priorities, that the true beginning, the true moment when I CAN REALLY SAY THAT I'M GOING TO WORLD YOUTH DAY never seems to really, actually, technically, literally arrive.

A bishop's blessing can be pretty convincing, though. So can driving an hour and a half up to Newark to get the blessing, come to think of it. That little adventure, in my beat-up Buick, with a phone GPS losing power, made me notice that even the smaller journeys in our every day lives can be seen as pilgrimages. Zigzagging through Newark, I certainly offered up my share of prayers while hoping that I make the right turn to get to the archdiocesan retreat center in Kearny. I'm still not exactly sure where it is even after going there.

We all make sacrifices. Every blessing comes with its sacrifices, including this chance to go to WYD. My sacrifice is an emptied bank account. Even though most of the trip has been paid for by others, this pilgrimage has already left me broke; and it hasn't even started yet. Nonetheless, just like our guide from Regina Tours told us last night, "No one has ever gone to World Youth Day and said I wish I hadn't spent all my savings to go."

Burning with anticipation, I can only hope that she's right.    


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What comes to mind when I think Rio? There’s the Christ the Redeemer statue, the laid back beaches hugged by mountains and high rises, and the controversial shanty towns in the foothills. There’s the recent riots against bus fares, the 6.3 million citizens, and Portuguese (which I told myself months ago to learn, but still haven’t). Then there’s the FIFA World Cup next year and the Summer Olympics of 2016.

With the exception of Mexico, I’ve never been to another country where English wasn’t a common language. In fact, with the exception of Mexico, Canada and Ireland, I’ve never been to another country, period. Ironically, with the exception of Canada, I’ve never been to another country for anything other than missionary purposes– unless you count that one time I crossed over to Nogales just to get a real Mexican poncho, or the time I accidentally took the San Diego rail line into Tijuana. The trip to Ireland was with my college rugby team, but even then my team, the Franciscan University Barons, saw sports as an opportunity to evangelize the teams we played and their fans.

Remembering that mission to evangelize adds to the adventure of this journey to Rio. It is a strange way to be a missionary though, I must admit. Usually you think of missionaries serving in hospitals, feeding the poor, or building new homes for the homeless in ‘mission territory’ where there really aren’t many other Christians. But we’ll be attending concerts, drama skits and inspirational speeches with about 2 million other Catholics in a city that is at least half Catholic and at least three quarters Christian. Yes, we will be about 2 million strong, and we still won’t outnumber the local Catholic population of Rio.

The media is expecting World Youth Day to boost the economy of the city. That’s really the core element of missionary power here… our presence, the sheer magnitude, the communal power, of so many young Catholics being there. Even if you are Christian, it is possible to be re-evangelized by such an extraordinary witness. And that’s what WYD really is: so out of the ordinary. Even the cultural Catholic could be pleasantly surprised and inspired by this eccentric representation of the Church. We see an aging congregation at Mass on Sunday, the lack of young faces among the clergy, and we walk up to the locked churches all around the country, and we think the Catholic Church’s future is dismal. Then we see the missionaries of World Youth Day. Many of the events in Rio from July 23 to 28 will be entertaining in nature because this is a truly joyful generation of Christians. They bring not only hope but life.

Many Catholics are discouraged by the lack of religious vocations in my generation, but let’s get to the real issue here. My generation has been disconnected from the rich Catholic culture that our elders knew so well. We need to rebuild first. We need to raise true Catholic families before we can get a good influx of religious vocations, because the vocations will come from those families -- and the families will come from those inspired by John Paul the Great’s great idea, World Youth Day.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

I have noticed that many people do not know about World Youth Day. I mean they never even heard of it.  When I mention I'm going, they look at me curiously as if I'm talking about some sort of regional high school pep rally that wouldn't garner the interest of a local newspaper. Perhaps they take the word "World" in the title lightly, like "the world's largest corn palace" that only fascinates  people who are interested in buildings made of strange materials, or in all the wonderful things you can do with corn.

No, there's nothing corny about World Youth Day; and it may be the fruit of an abundant harvest, but it's a harvest of a completely different kind. When they say 160 countries will be represented, they don't mean just a handful from each one. They mean hundreds and thousands from many of them. It is the largest gathering in the world, period. Nothing even comes close. They can't even estimate the number that may show up at the Vigil Mass with the pope on the final day. Since the election of Pope Francis, they say many from his home country of  Argentina are signing up last minute. In fact, the Argentine Pope is a source of pride for all Hispanics in a way, so I won't be surprised if his election inspired more people from all around Latin America to come.

So this is my first WYD, first time going to Brazil, and I'm going to see the first pope from the New World and the Southern Hemisphere. The things I've already heard of this champion of the poor have inspired me. I heard he encouraged all priests and religious sisters with luxury cars to sell the cars, buy something more modest, and give the rest of the money to the poor; and he invited the poor to dine with him in The Vatican. He'll visit the slums of Rio, and won't use the Popemobile there.

Apparently, Pope Francis rightly sees WYD as the perfect opportunity to exemplify Catholic Social Teaching, because the great event has gained such communal power. The message of charity that politicians and celebrities try to convey on similar big stages will be put in action when Pope Francis comes to Rio de Janeiro.

I find the roots of this colossal event 28 years ago to be quite ironic. Pope John Paul II called the first WYD in 1985 in solidarity with the United Nation's declaration of an International Youth Year. So, in an age when people are saying religion is becoming less and less relevant, and when they're saying the Church no longer has the communal power it once had to unite nations, the United Nations declares a year for the youth and the Catholic Church runs with the idea, bringing together more young people than the U.N. ever could, even if it hosted an event with every rock star and global leader in the world. Back in 1985, it was as if Mother Church was saying, "You want to unite the new generation and give people hope, United Nations? Let me show you how it's done."

Tomorrow we will take off from Newark Liberty International Airport for a day of air travel to Rio, to continue the legacy that began in Pope John Paul II's historic pontificate. All the preparations have been made. The wait is over. Tomorrow it begins ... well, kind of. 


Monday, July 22, 2013

I woke up this morning on a plane with an aching back and stiff neck after an overnight flight from Miami to Rio. Little did I know then that later in the day I would see Pope Francis drive past me not more than 10 feet away.

After settling in, some friends and I took a short walk to the Presbyterian Cathedral of Rio, just down the block from where we’re staying at Rio’s Presidente Hotel. It was a beautiful neo-gothic cathedral in itself, but it wasn’t long before something else caught our eye. Throughout the day we saw small groups of pilgrims walking past our hotel. We thought nothing of it, figuring it’s about the right time to start seeing fellow pilgrims all around the city. But the crowds of them walking past us grew larger and larger, and by the time we were at the Presbyterian Cathedral they couldn’t be ignored. So we followed, and they led us to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Sebastian. The streets and overpasses all around us were lined with people waiting for the pope to drive by. We quickly found a spot, and as Pope Francis came by in the Popemobile, I knew that I can now officially say that World Youth Day had begun, even though the official ceremonies don’t start until tomorrow night.

World Youth Day hasn’t even officially started yet, and the pope already decided to make a surprise visit to the center of Rio and drive past the iconic, pyramid-shaped cathedral. This follows the theme of his visit; he wants to be seen as a commoner who doesn't have to announce to the world everywhere he is going, he wants to be one with the people, even one with the poor. For us, the blessing of finding him was the result of our curious, rambling spirits that just wanted to explore a little. Sure, we heard a bit earlier that the pope was coming to the city today, but we didn’t know when or where. Throughout the day, we were saying, "Let’s go find the pope", but only with the slightest hope that we actually would find him and get as close as we did.

After that memorable encounter, we went to the cathedral and heard rumors that he was stopping there as well. Even though he didn’t come, we did partake in a magnificent Mass with Argentine bishops and about 20,000 other pilgrims. The three of us were immersed in Hispanic culture, and loved it. The music, community, and joy all around us was contagious. It all showed how in every culture, Catholicism is a little different, yet it always retains this universal similarity with the Catholicism in other cultures.

So went the first day of World Youth Day, Rio. It feels like it has already begun, but in reality tomorrow is when the adventure officially will begin.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Every day here is a new story. Right now there’s a line of pilgrims a city block long outside my hotel room window waiting for food from a local restaurant. Things can be tough when on pilgrimage, so the pilgrims have been given voucher cards that are good with any restaurant in the city that has a red ball sign on it, so we foreigners have one less thing to worry about. Naturally, just about every restaurant with a red ball sign has at least a 20 minute line. I'm not sure the businesses knew what they signed up for when they agreed to be a WYD designated restaurant.

Yesterday we went up Corcovado to visit the Christ the Redeemer Statue. It was a very cloudy day, and we were in fact in the middle of a cloud for most of the time we were on the mountain; but we still went and made the best of it. For brief moments, the clouds drifted away and we had a much clearer view of the statue and the city lying several hundred meters below. The clouds may have disappointed some of us, but for me they made the short-lived clear views of the statue and city all the more precious. Perhaps if we came on a clear day, we would have been overwhelmed by the view at first, then we would have stood there taking it all in, taking pictures at this and that angle, with this and that friend and foreigner; then once our excitement wore off, we would have left Corcovado believing we had taken in all the beauty that the wonder has to offer. But since we came on a cloudy day, for us the full splendor of the place is still shrouded in mystery.

Last night we were supposed to go to the opening Mass of World Youth Day celebrated by Archbishop Orani João Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro, but we got down from Corcovado too late. By the time we got to the site of the Mass, there was no room, so once again we decided to make the best of the situation.  We came back to the hotel and had Mass on the rooftop at the same exact time of the opening Mass with Archbishop Tempesta ( the roof has a large sitting area). The celebrant was Father Joseph Espaillat, youth ministry director of the Archdiocese of New York, and he brought with him a small group of pilgrims from his archdiocese and Brooklyn Diocese. Also celebrating with our group of 23 pilgrims from New Jersey were pilgrims from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, who happen to be staying in Rio’s Presidente Hotel as well. We called it our own Mass of divine providence, because how else would we have had the chance to celebrate the Eucharist with other U.S. pilgrims in such an extraordinary, intimate setting, on such short notice?  Much more has happened today, but I had a short window of time so I took it to catch up on the recent happenings here at World Youth Day. If the night isn’t too crazy, I will bring this blog up to speed with the most recent events, especially the USA gathering at the Vivo Rio that I must find my way to right now. Viva Cristo! 


If you’re expecting a standard account of World Youth Day, with all the interesting facts and significant events that journalists report, you might be disappointed after reading this blog. All of the professional reports are important to an extent; but if you want to know what it's like to be a pilgrim completely immersed in the fray of World Youth Day, this blog is for you. Whenever I try to plan some neatly packed itinerary for the day, some mishap or absentmindedness of mine rearranges my plans drastically. All is well though, because God works through my absentmindedness as well.

It’s certainly worthwhile to experience God’s presence through the communion of millions of other pilgrims, but I believe part of the World Youth Day experience involves casting into the deep by venturing off the beaten path. It's there that you find God in conversations with local residents, or in just observing the every day lives of Rio de Janeirans.

Two nights ago, after we celebrated Mass on the hotel rooftop, my roommate and I decided to really take in what Rio has to offer. So we ate at a truly Brazilian local restaurant. I had Brazilian farfofa, which is a flour-based dish with eggs, ham, and olives mixed in. Then we went to a salsa dance club, keeping in mind that God wants us to live life to the fullest and that includes having fun. And of course, saying I've gone salsa dancing in Rio is another phenomenal conversation starter.

The drawback was I slept late the next day, and missed the New Jersey group as they headed off to catechesis with Cardinal Timothy Dolan at Vivo Rio concert hall. All is well though, because I did manage to hitch onto the New York group that’s also staying at our hotel, and we had our morning catechesis at the beautiful Our Lady of Candelaria Church.  Bishop Lawrence Subrata Howlander of Bangladesh led the catechesis, with music by Jesse Manibusan. The Mass was also phenomenal. English speaking priests from around the world concelebrated with Bishop Lawrence. So far I’ve met pilgrims from Australia, Argentina, Cameroon, Dubai, Hungary, Quebec, Taiwan, and of course the U.S. and Brazil. The main concentration of U.S. pilgrims came when I went to the USA Gathering at Vivo Rio last night.

Testimonies and praise and worship led by Jacob & Matthew, as well as Diane Rose, led up to the main event there, which was Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska, gave a talk during the Exposition and told us how Venerable Pope John Paul II blessed one monstrance for North America, giving it to the North American bishops and instructing them to use it to pray for vocations. Bishop Burns then told us that specially blessed monstrance was the one within which the Blessed Sacrament was being adored that very night, right there with us in the Vivo Rio. That time of adoration with fellow American pilgrims, who traveled so far to be part of World Youth Day, was one of those memories that becomes engraved in the soul. It would have been an ideal closing for the day, but our night did not end there. After the USA gathering someone, I don't know who, treated us to dinner at a place called Santo Scenarium. What I love about pilgrimages is the magnanimity of the people like these strangers who bought us dinner. What I love about the restaurants in Rio are their juices, and the pineapple juice I had last night is worth mentioning. Every restaurant in Rio offers a wide variety of juices; I suppose this is due to the fact that the country owns the Amazon Rain Forest, thereby giving it access to an abundance of fresh fruit. I've grown especially fond of their acai juice. As wonderful as Rio is in regards to juice drinks, their Internet access, at least in the hotels, is not so great. So even though I'd like to add more to this post I have to end it before the hotel's wifi automatically logs me off again.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Every story has its climax, a point where the main character has to make a critical decision that will tremendously affect the rest of the events in the narrative. For this story on my experiences during World Youth Day, Rio, the climax didn’t occur at any of the major events I attended – like Pope Francis’ opening address, or the Stations of the Cross on the beach at Copacabana, and it won’t be the quickly approaching Vigil Mass that serves as the climax for so many pilgrims – because my turning point came in a much more unexpected, perhaps even controversial, manner on the night of July 25. On July 24, I got separated from the New Jersey group and wound up spending most of the day with a group from New York City. On July 25, I set my alarm an hour too late and missed the New Jersey group again as they headed for Copacabana for the pope’s opening address for World Youth Day. I then tried to tag along with the group from Lafayette Diocese, but got stuck at the subway turn stall and lost track of them. So I headed to Copacabana alone, trying to make the best of the situation. I haggled with a beach vender to get him to sell me a beach umbrella and chair for $20 since I was all out of reals. Then I grabbed a spot considerably close to the stage as the crowd of well over a million grew all around me. I was surrounded by people, people who even shared my faith, but felt utterly alone because I knew none of them and didn’t speak their language. Then it started to rain, and I discovered holes in my umbrella. As I sat there getting wet, questions began to rise within me, like "Why did I bother to come to World Youth Day? It has already been more of a hassle than anything else," and "What’s the big deal about seeing the pope? Aren’t parts of this global event a bit overdone?" I abandoned my coveted spot and even entertained the thought of leaving the opening ceremony all together, but as I was walking out the flags of U.S. pilgrims kind of tugged at my soul. I couldn’t leave without talking to them and making some connections. So that’s what I did for the entire afternoon while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive. As the sun went down and the pope drove past the massive crowd on the avenue and beach, I was in the middle of the fray again, but barely hanging on. I wanted to leave. When the pope’s address began in Spanish and no translation to English was offered, I did leave. It was a controversial thing for any pilgrim to do, considering the fact that we were there to see and listen to the pontiff. Here I am at my first World Youth Day, and the first chance I get to hear the pope speak, I leave before the talk even begins. I got very lost on the way back to the hotel. This may have been Christ’s punishment for me for walking out on his vicar, but I cannot be sure. All I know is that I was tired, alone, wet and after at least an hour of being lost, I began to worry. Fumbling in my pockets for a rosary, I found one of the red, white and blue ones made by a group of women from Holy Innocents Parish, Neptune. They gave the rosaries to a few WYD pilgrims from New Jersey, with the request that we distribute them to the pilgrims we meet in Rio. I did hand out many of them, but was glad that I had this one for myself. Being lost in a foreign city can ignite the flame of faith, especially when there’s nothing you can do but pray to God that he leads you in the right direction. After praying the Rosary by myself on some quiet backstreets, I came across a taxi driver who was taking a cigarette break. I asked him if he knew how to get to Rio’s Presidente Hotel on Rua Pedro I. He understood the location but couldn’t explain to me how to get there in English, so he offered to drive me to the hotel … for free. At first I was reluctant, thinking I really shouldn't get in the car of a stranger offering something for free, but at that point I didn't have much of a choice. I figured, if he drives me to some abandoned warehouse to interrogate and torture me, at least I can say I suffered in the name of Christ. The taxi driver wound up being a Godsend and led me right to the plaza near our hotel. I was at a tipping point in my faith that night, but getting lost in Rio made me think of the one thing that has saved me in similar desperate situations in the past. My confidence in prayer was restored as this magnanimous taxi driver pulled over to the curb right by our hotel. As I walked back I kissed that rosary and offered a tearful laugh to heaven. World Youth Day, Rio, once again, strengthened my faith in an unexpected way. All these unconventional experiences of faith on the old streets of Rio are God’s way of showing me that there is no escaping his love. 


Sunday, July 28, 2013

I have to admit, there were moments throughout this pilgrimage when I was one step away from actually turning away from my religion, instead of being strengthened by it. There were moments when I saw World Youth Day as nothing but a reason to travel and meet people from other countries. There were times when I noticed how many locals saw the pilgrims as a nuisance, and times when I questioned foundational principles of the faith -- especially during those hours when it was hot or rainy and I was sleep deprived but still had to pay attention at Mass or catechesis, or find my way back to the hotel alone.  Whatever negative impression or criticism someone can have regarding World Youth Day, it’s likely that I also had it at one moment or another during this pilgrimage.

I say this because it’s important to really emphasize the whole point of World Youth Day, for me at least. A pilgrim cannot fulfill the mission of his pilgrimage unless he pushes himself to his very limit, relinquishing his dependence on his own strength so that he practically has no choice but to have faith that God will pull him through.

The leader of our group, Father Bismarck Chau, a few other pilgrims and I reached that point of physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion Friday while waiting for the Stations of the Cross with the pope to begin at Copacabana, which is that iconic beach in so many Rio postcards. We arrived at Copacabana at about 2 pm, then decided to get pizza for our group of 14 New Jersey pilgrims. On our way back, while carrying 10 pizzas and two bottles of soda, we had to search all along the beachside avenue for an entrance back onto the beach. We asked guards where we could get back in, and they kept telling us "Go farther down," "Go farther down." No entrance was found along the whole beach, so we tried to persuade the guards to just let the four of us through, telling them that we had children on the other side who were hungry. We even convinced other people around us to support our cause and try to persuade the guards, but the guards didn’t budge. They just kept telling us to go farther down the beach to find an entrance.

So we walked and walked farther and farther from our group on the other side as we looked for this fabled crossing. We walked to the end of Copacabana, to the point where we could go no further, then finally we were told we simply have to wait for the pope to pass before we could cross. Why didn't they just tell us that in the first place, before we walked almost three miles with 10 pizzas?  So we waited, and when they finally allowed us to cross we had to walk practically the whole length of Copacabana, 4 kilometers… again, in the sand, to get back to our group. Four hours and about five miles later, we finally got the lunch, or I should say dinner, to our patient but hungry group, who greeted us with cheers.

This may just sound like a frustrating ordeal that every pilgrim is bound to deal with if they dare to go to World Youth Day, but for me it was another test of faith. Earlier that day we attended a very enriching catechesis at Vivo Rio with Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston. He reminded us how our Western Civilization often takes Christianity for granted, not seeing how powerful and wonderful the Gospel truly is. He told a story of a few Franciscan missionaries who were sent to Papua New Guinea to evangelize the natives there. These natives lived in a very isolated part of the country and never heard the Gospel. They still performed revenge killings because they had no concept of natural death and believed whenever someone died there was someone to blame.

But when the missionaries came the natives were swept away by the news of Jesus, and were deeply grateful toward the Franciscans for giving them the hope of the Gospel. The area now has 160,000 Catholics, and they wrap their Bibles in cloth as they do for all things that are precious to them.

Bishop O’Malley then explained how the Good News often has the opposite effect in Western culture. The mere mention of Jesus sometimes drives people away, as if they have been “vaccinated against the Gospel,” because they feel like they’ve heard everything there is to know about Christianity.

The bishop made it clear that we are in a cultural battle in America. Youth and young adults are encouraged by peers to cohabitate and have premarital sex, even though studies have shown that these “trial marriages” have twice the divorce rate, the bishop said. He told the young people to pray to the Holy Spirit about their vocation, and if they’re called to marriage, pray to "find the right person and to be the right person."

“Marry someone who has the same faith and sense of mission,” he said. “Get married to have children and you will be a blessing to your family, the Church and society.”

As we were walking back to our group at Copacabana with the pizza, my physical fatigue actually reminded me of this sense of mission. Even in the small things, like going to get food for a group of people, faith can be renewed. No act of love is too small, and it is in fact those small acts of love that collectively form the Body of Christ. These truths were hidden from me at those times when I lacked faith on this pilgrimage, but now it's clear that Christ had to put me through my own Stations of the Cross before I could fully appreciate praying them with the pope.

In my moments of doubt on this pilgrimage, I could not escape the logic of God’s kingdom. We’re each called to some task. Taken by itself it may seem insignificant, but when it’s done with faith and obedience to God’s will it can be powerful. How powerful? How strong? Well, three million pilgrims from all around the world strong. For one like me with such little faith, it took that kind of testimony for me to finally get it. I could go about questioning the principles of Catholicism and try to find God on my own, but if I did that I would have to ignore the power of the Church’s communion. The witness of three million joyful young Catholics from 160 different countries, singing and dancing in the streets of Rio, will always be present in my mind. Now that I’ve been to World Youth Day, I can honestly conclude that there is no greater faith, no greater way of life, no greater fulfillment or joy than those which come with being Catholic. 


View from atop our hotel, Rio's Presidente, in Centro right by St. Sebastian Cathedral

A Mass in St. Sebastian Cathedral with the bishops of Argentina July 22

St. Sebastian Cathedral lit up at night

Crowds at Copacabana for Stations of the Cross July 26

Jacob & Matthew performing at the English speaking catechesis in Vivo Rio

Brazilian farfofo, one of many authentic Brazilian dishes we enjoyed

The crowds at the opening address of World Youth Day by Pope Francis at Copacabana

Me at Copacabana waiting for Pope Francis

Another day of catechesis at Vivo Rio

Overnight vigil

Me at Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado

The view from Corcovado on a cloudy day

Christ the Redeemer statue (I just couldn't get the whole thing)


Pilgrims dancing in the rain in Rio July 24

Crowds took over the streets of Rio during the week of World Youth Day

Pilgrims gather before Pope Francis' opening address at World Youth Day

This sand sculpture greeted pilgrims at an entrance to Copacabana

A view near Sugarloaf Mountain on our walk to Copacabana for the Vigil Mass

Pilgrims from St. Dorothea Parish, Eatontown, after Mass with the Pope July 27. From left are Justin Odon, Mahal Wilson, Regene (Seven) Odon, and Malcolm Wilson.

Millions of pilgrims gather for the Vigil Mass on the final day of World Youth Day

A group of pilgrims from New Jersey gather in Miami Airport July 29 to reflect on Pope Francis' homily the day before.

Millions of pilgrim walk to the Vigil Mass at Copacabana July 27

Pilgrims walk past Sugarloaf Mountain on their way to the Vigil Mass.


How can I adequately capture what it was like to not just watch World Youth Day on TV, but to truly experience it as three million fellow Catholics have? While waiting for the plane back to Newark in Miami, various news sources filled us in on the parts of the pope’s visit that we couldn’t take in as English-speaking pilgrims on the ground. The Vatican website had his Vigil Mass homily translated into English, and our group of New Jersey pilgrims gathered around an iPad as Father Paul, a great priest who joined us on our pilgrimage, read the homily aloud to us. In this way, we kind of got to experience the homily twice. Being in the presence of three million pilgrims while hearing the pope speak at Copacabana was powerful enough, even though I didn’t understand what he was saying. Hearing his words in English though, and then being right there with the New Jersey pilgrims as they heard the words for the first time in English, really drove home the pope’s message for me. He said being an active Christian is like being an athlete and not just a spectator. To be an athlete one must train, while spectators only have to pay admission. If life were a sporting event, we as Christians are the athletes on the field when it comes time to profess our faith. But before we can do so properly, we must make practicing our faith part of our everyday lives, just as an athlete must train every day before entering the arena. On the plane back to Italy, Pope Francis boldly answered all of the questions on hot button issues that reporters asked him. Just search the Internet if you want to learn more about his answers and the reactions of the Press, because I don't want to make this pilgrimage into a worldly affair. If I received anything from watching the media's reaction to the pope's visit and his seemingly eccentric message, it's that there's no way for modern society to capture the depth of Catholic tradition and theology. Modern media takes the quick soundbytes they hear from the pope's messages, the soundbytes that could have a hint of what they want to hear if they twist them around a bit; then they harp on those one or two statements of his, like "Who am I to judge" homosexuals, and then they turn it into a big headline that makes it seem like the Church has changed its teachings.

Then while they're dwelling on those two minutes of Pope Francis' words, they completely disregard the beauty, the power and magnitude of World Youth Day. Perhaps they'll make a passive comment while observing the crowds at Copacabana, saying, "the Pope sure knows how to throw a beach party!"

Enough of that already, though. We have our faith, and no matter how much the media misinterprets true Catholicism, we know who we are. No outside observation of the Vigil at Copacabana can compare to actually being a part of that crowd of witnesses on the beach. What a great idea to have the vigil right on the ocean. The plan was to have it at Campus Fidei, which would have been about a nine-mile walk into the rain forest. When we were told it had to be moved from Campus Fidei because the rain made the spot too muddy, that seemed to make sense since there was a great deal of rain over the past few days. But when I returned to the States and heard what the news was saying, I heard the main reason the vigil was moved from Campus Fidei to Copacabana was because the rain caused the alligators and monkeys to come out at Campus Fidei. The streets of Rio could not have been more awe-inspiring than when endless crowds of young Catholics sang their native hymns to Jesus and Mary and chanted "Esta est la juventude de papa" (This is the youth of the pope). The songs and chants echoed in the streets and tunnels; and I venture to say that those joy-filled streets of Rio captured the truthful, grassroots, natural essence of World Youth Day, because in the streets was where we saw the most authentic, personalized expressions of faith. We walked from our hotel to Copacabana, about a three mile journey, and during that walk I could see the essence of our pilgrimage. We didn't have to go by foot, but we chose to because it was such a greater witness than taking public transportation. Wide highways were filled with pilgrims waving their flags, dancing and singing. I've never seen such joy in my life. I've never had such a pleasant long walk. Times came when we had to, or chose to, take the bus or subway, and even then songs and shouts of joy took over the trains and buses.  As we did throughout our time in Rio, we exchanged items authentic to our countries during the walk to Copacabana. Our group had the red, white and blue rosaries made by the group of ladies from Holy Innocents Parish, Neptune. I received a whole box of them from this anonymous, magnanimous group, and they were such a hit that by the day of the vigil, July 27, we had none left. Oftentimes when we started handing them out, pilgrims from other countries would gather around us asking for one of them. I can go on and on about the Vigil Mass, but let it suffice to say that it will be one of those memories that remains engraved on my heart, mind and soul, especially when I think of the communal power of the Church. The last two nights of our pilgrimage, we slept on the beach and then on the airplane from Rio to Miami. I got very little sleep on the beach, as was the case for many of us; but on the plane for some reason I slept soundly. The flight back to the States couldn't have gone more quickly for me even if I'd been teleported to Miami on the U.S.S. Enterprise. Many of the other New Jersey pilgrims on the plane experienced the same deep sleep. I truly think the Holy Spirit placed upon us a deep slumber of contentment after the adventurous, fulfilling pilgrimage we experienced over the past week. When I awoke and found myself back in New Jersey after the flight from Miami, I was blessed with the clarity of mission. One of Pope Francis' messages to the pilgrims was "You came here as disciples. You will leave here as missionaries." We went to Rio as followers of Christ, as young people seeking a way to serve him. Now we are overflowing with blessings, grace and inspiration. We have been evangelized. Now it is time to evangelize, to "go and make disciples of nations."

Throughout my WYD blog posts, starting with my first one, I pondered when it would be proper to say my journey has truly begun. Now I know that my journey actually begins right now.


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