Teenagers and young adults throughout the Diocese of Phoenix echoed Pope Francis upon returning from World Youth Day celebrations held July 23-28 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — and their joy is greater than their exhaustion.
They returned from the papal celebration on Copacabana Beach with greater zeal for and understanding of their Catholic identity. Many also arrived in Arizona ready to take a more active role in the Church, both inside and far beyond its physical walls.
Many got a glimpse of the pontiff. For some, it was a photo, a wave, or for a few young women from St. Anne Parish in Gilbert, a drive-by blessing. Michael Chavira and the 11 other pilgrims from Brophy College Preparatory may have gotten the earliest peek at the pope: in the popemobile just before the opening ceremony.
It only took six words for Chavira to cry tears of joy. The pope, quoting Blessed Pope John Paul II’s first World Youth Day remarks, expressed great hope in the youth.
“At that moment, I realized that the Holy Father was talking to me, telling me that he had hope for me and the universal Church,” said Chavira, a St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner.
The entire journey energized the Brophy pilgrims. Chavira loved the challenge the Holy Father, cardinals, bishops and priests gave: to go out into the world and make a mess. They repeatedly challenged youth to stir things up for the sake of the Gospel and engage those on the margins of society.
Pope Francis gave them an example when he visited a hospital in Rio to address a group of recovering drug addicts. He also addressed the valuable lesson of solidarity while visiting the poor community of Varginha. Everywhere he went, including the cruise through downtown in the Brazilian-made Fiat, his intent was to be “close to the people” and in solidarity with them.
Ross Johnson plans to take a similar approach. The Brophy junior, with the help of his theology teacher, realized the importance of living every breath to its fullest and to not look back with regrets.
That plan has worked so far for Mariadina DiGennaro and Alex Baish. The Tempe couple scheduled a belated honeymoon to Rio de Janeiro where they could indulge in Catholic history and discern their place in the world.
“A normal honeymoon you’d see the poor and suppress the feeling, but in discipleship, it’s OK and healthy to feel an outrage and want to do something about it,” Baish said while enroute back to Arizona.
“It lit a fire for Alex and me in going back and seeing how we can be active not just in church, but serving the poor and uneducated,” DiGennaro said.
The bride recently joined a rosary makers group at Holy Spirit Parish in Tempe, but said the pope challenged her to strive for more interpersonal service.
Messages throughout World Youth Day’s catechesis sessions and liturgies focused on inner growth too. They showed Catholics how to acknowledge the difficulties of life in those “Oh no, Jesus, look what I did. What do I do now?” moments, Baish said, and move on through Jesus’ guidance.
“It’s a way to learn and grow by keeping the dialog open,” Baish said.
Sandra Reyes, a parishioner at St. Anne in Gilbert, coordinated a group of 50 young adult pilgrims. She said if a pilgrim’s ears, eyes or heart were open, the Spirit found its way in. For Reyes, that first chance came during an early morning visit to the 99-foot Christ the Redeemer statue atop a 2,300-foot mountain. The 35-year-old had wanted to visit the world’s fifth largest statue of Jesus since she was 9 — in spite of a fear of heights.
“When I saw His face, I couldn’t keep my eyes on His for more than a few seconds,” she said, noting a feeling of unworthiness.
A sense of Christ’s abundant generosity also hit her. Then Fr. Sergio Fita, pastor of St. Anne’s, obtained permission to offer Mass in the chapel at the foot of the statue.
“If I thought I was at a climax before, celebrating Mass and knowing I am going to encounter Christ in this moment with my spiritual director and with all these youth I helped bring here, I knew He loved me,” Reyes said.
Stephanie Arias, a fellow pilgrim, also left World Youth Day changed. The 21-year-old wasn’t even sure the global gathering that drew 3 million people — including nearly 200 local pilgrims counting a large contingent from the Neocatechumenal Way — was for her. She thought it was for young Catholics more involved in their faith. The vigil with Pope Francis challenged her to develop a habit of prayer and Arias has found herself praying in the car.
“I feel like I found myself again,” Arias said.
The pilgrims also found international friends in the faith. Many stayed with host families and were humbled at their generosity. St. Anne pilgrims noted each family’s desire to share what little they had with the pilgrims and be of service at all hours of the night. They also celebrated the birthday of one of the host dads before their departure.
Pilgrims from Holy Trinity Newman Center in Flagstaff shared about their host family during an EWTN interview with “Life on the Rock” while in Rio. The crew, including Fr. Matt Lowry, chaplain, were interviewed July 24.
“When we left, they literally took the family crucifix off the wall and gave it to us because they wanted us to take part of their family and faith with us,” Fr. Lowry said.