A World Youth Day pilgrim prays during a eucharistic adoration service in Rio de Janeiro July 24. (CNS photo/Emily M. Albert, The Catholic Witness)
A World Youth Day pilgrim prays during a eucharistic adoration service in Rio de Janeiro July 24. (CNS photo/Emily M. Albert, The Catholic Witness)

RIO DE JANEIRO (CNS) — For Americans at World Youth Day, it's not just seeing and praying with Pope Francis that's exciting, but the chance to bolster their own faith and take home their experiences.

Young pilgrims from across the country said the energetic feeling of being among hundreds of thousands of people from the world's different cultures who are unafraid of sharing their faith is both dynamic and inspiring.

“There is just such an amazing positive energy here,” said Moira Loughman, 33, of Scranton, Pa. “It's quite an experience to have so many people with common ideology, common bond.”

Loughman, a public school teacher, said she hopes the things she learns during the weeklong celebration will help her to be a better witness to the Gospel.

“I think living as an example for my students is huge,” she explained. “As a public school teacher, I know that I can't promote a particular faith tradition, but you can let others know you are Christian by the way you love, by the way you act.”

Her sentiments match the World Youth Day theme: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Rooted in Matthew's Gospel, the theme stresses the idea of reaching out to others, that is, evangelizing for the faith through one's life. World Youth Day organizers hope that's what will transpire in the years ahead among the pilgrims voyaging to Brazil.

Learning from each other and seeing a common faith among people of the world is what has inspired Lauren Salas, 22, a member of St. Ann Parish in Coppell, Texas.

“The first day meeting groups from other countries actually brought physical joy, because I have never seen this much energy from people my age,” she said. “The welcoming from Brazil as well as all pilgrims we met throughout the streets was breaking stereotypes, because we are all there for the same thing: Jesus, Catholic faith, and meeting our Holy Father, Pope Francis.”

Elisa Nirei from St. Ann Parish in Kaneohe, Hawaii, agreed.

“I will take home from this experience that I need to be more vocal and don't let fear stand in front of my faith,” she said.

Others felt emboldened by the Latin American culture. Pilgrims from Queens, N.Y., participated in song and prayer for two hours in Portuguese with a group of Brazilians and one more hour in eucharistic adoration.

“They got us dancing,” said Jasmine Gomez, 20, one of the pilgrims. “I'm usually introverted and shy. And, I don't know, I just felt comfortable.”

Shannon Kowalski, 23, a youth minister for St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Moscow, Pa., said she, too, will be eager to share her enthusiasm for her Catholic faith when she returns home.

“This is most important, what I'm getting for my own faith life,” she said. “If I don't have it, I can't give it to them.”

During a holy hour at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops site, Emily Albert of Harrisburg, Pa., was looking to record the event with photographs. She said she observed people kneeling in prayer and was enamored by the depth of prayer of one young pilgrim.

“Her concentration in prayer was amazing. Soon after the photo was taken, I looked over again and saw tears running from her eyes,” Albert said. “I soon noticed many of the youth and young adults were weeping at the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I felt my own eyes welling with tears, and my heart was fluttering. I became overwhelmed by this feeling and sat for a moment of my own in prayer. I soon realized the feeling these teens and young adults were encountering. There is something so contagious about World Youth Day.”

As for the damp, breezy and cool weather of the Brazilian winter that greeted the pilgrims: no problem. Most were prepared ahead of time, cautioned to bring warm bedding and clothing.

“Our faith was bigger than the weather,” said Taide Mier from Our Lady of Guadalupe Delhi Parish in Santa Ana, Calif.

Of course, being in the presence of Pope Francis overcame any discomfort. Pilgrims strained and flexed their way through the huge crowds to glimpse or even touch the friendly pontiff.

“My favorite part, so far, was when Pope Francis drove right outside our hotel and I saw him,” Nirei said.

Others were excited to hear his message for Catholic youth.

“Pope Francis is trying to tell us that the world is looking to us, and we need to set an example. The pope sees hope in us, and that's a great feeling,” Kowalski said.

Pope Francis kept a high profile while in Rio, giving thousands of people the chance to see him and hear his easy-to-understand message that loving Jesus can go a long way to overcoming individualism and the barriers that keep people from appreciating each other. He visited a drug rehabilitation center and a “favela,” or slum, welcomed inmates from local prisons and even heard confessions.

“Seeing a holy father that can speak to an international church but care so much for the local … we have a true shepherd leading our church,” said Yollenna Morales from St. Barbara Parish in Orange County, Calif.

The pilgrims said they enjoyed their experiences with Pope Francis in events throughout the city.

“My favorite part of World Youth Day has been everything that has involved the Eucharist, like Mass and the holy hour at the USA gathering. The Eucharist is the most beautiful encounter with Christ,” said Joeleny Isidro from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

Charles Maniego, a member of Holy Family Parish in Flushing, N.Y., said, “It made prayer what it should be. It's talking to God. I got so deep into it, that when I stood up, I felt chills.”

Rhea Quemado from Resurrection of the Lord Parish in Waipio, Hawaii, found the opening Mass particularly inspiring. “There was no organized way to receive communion, everyone was pushing to receive Christ, but I didn't think it was in a bad way. You could feel everyone's yearning for Christ,” she said.