(Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Pilgrims work on learning each other’s names and faces at St. Luke Parish July 9. Teens, young adults and adults throughout the Diocese of Phoenix plus one from Yuma and two from Texas are traveling to World Youth Day in Poland together. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Exactly two weeks before their plane took off for World Youth Day festivities in Poland, all 28 pilgrims knew one another’s name and face.

It didn’t matter if they belonged to St. Luke Parish — which in partnership with John Paul Tours and Pilgrimages, is organizing its first World Youth Day venture — or beyond. In reality, only one-fourth of the pilgrims are St. Luke parishioners.

Others belong to St. James in Glendale, All Saints Catholic Newman Center in Tempe, Our Lady of Joy in Carefree and Immaculate Conception in Cottonwood, to name a few. One teenager moved from St. Luke to a parish in Yuma a year ago, long after World Youth Day fundraising and other commitments began. The only two pilgrims that fellow travelers may not visually recognize yet are the pair from Texas joining the group.

That’s because the final pilgrimage meeting at St. Luke July 9 focused on far more than just traveling logistics and concerns. It also featured repetitive rounds of the name game. If a pilgrim mixed someone up or forgot a name, Fr. Pawel Stawarczyk, pastor, fellow pilgrim and a native of Poland, insisted the guesser personally shake hands with the forgotten companion.

Rounds of the name game was broken up by other genuine conversation that also served as strategic ice breakers. For example, pilgrims stood in ever-changing groups within the church hall in response to pastor questions about the part of the pilgrimage they’re most excited about, suitable ways to “recharge” when they’re tired and the like. They also had a few minutes to discuss their newfound shared trait.

“We need to feel relaxed with one another because we’re going to spend two weeks with one another,” Fr. Stawarczyk told The Catholic Sun following the meeting. The activities were also for security purposes. Each member needed to know the name and matching face of who they were looking for if someone got lost in the crowd. The group heads to World Youth Day in Poland July 26-31 and then to Italy.

A roundtable discussion about fears and concerns about the pilgrimage also ensued at that final pilgrimage meeting. He hoped the ice breakers helped them find moments of shared struggles and moments of joy or laughter.

(Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
(Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

“All Christianity is a shared experience. Christianity is in a family. We want this trip not to be just of individuals, but of a family,” Fr. Stawarczyk said.

Some of the pilgrims already belong to the same family. A married couple, three grandchildren and their grandma, a mother and daughter plus three sisters and their good friend, are among the previously-bonded pilgrims.

For the Rodriguez sisters who by the time they leave will range in age from 15 to 21 — the youngest has a birthday soon — the World Youth Day pilgrimage is about being with their spiritual family. It’s in lieu of their typical summer trip to visit grandparents in Mexico. They’re bringing along their good friend, Amy Bueno, who is leaving on her sister’s birthday.

The young women from St. Luke look forward to an increased global view, seeing the pope and growing in their Catholic spirituality.

“I kind of have no expectations. I’m just going with an open mind,” said Mariana, 21.

Emily Cienega, an incoming high school freshman in Cottonwood, has a similar outlook. She became a World Youth Day pilgrim to experience a Catholic Mass in other countries and cultures.

“I’m looking forward to the night under the stars where you just sleep outside and have Mass in the morning,” Cienega said.

Her mom, Diana, agreed that adoration during the vigil the night before Mass with Pope Francis was a perfect opportunity to meditate. And she can’t help but wonder what the sky will look like on the other side of the world. Parts of the Verde Valley where she is from are known as a “Dark Sky” community.

Diana had seen and heard about World Youth Day since its inception 30 years ago and thought it might be a good thing to experience, so she opted to tag along. She is looking forward to seeing the Stations of the Cross being re-enacted throughout the city July 29.

Raquel Rodriguez — no relation to the sister trio — has been steadily preparing pilgrims for the journey as St. Luke’s parish manager and fellow traveler. She has been sharing links from World Youth Day organizers and the U.S. bishops office to prepare them for the weather, packing and other logistics.

“We’ve given the pilgrims a heads up that they might want to start to get comfortable with waling two, five, seven miles s day,” Rodriguez said.

Other pilgrims have never been out of the country or even on a plane. Gabriel Herrera, 16, a former St. Luke parishioner and Most Holy Trinity student now living in Yuma, fits the latter category. He is excited for the opportunity, but slightly nervous.

“It’ll be an eye-opener for me and hopefully it can be an inspiration for others to go and do great things for God,” Herrera said.

He is part of an Arcoiris group at his Yuma parish. It’s part of the Cursillo Movement and aimed at youth evangelization. Herrera hopes to bring something back to fellow teens, even if it’s a simple witness.

“I felt that I needed the experience to get closer with God and have this bond with Him and become stronger and closer,” he said.

Fr. Stawarczyk is eager to embrace this journey back to his homeland — this time with a lot more pilgrims. He said nothing can replace a firsthand experience. Pictures and videos of pilgrimages can only do so much.

“Taking people there is way more expressive in talking about the universal Church,” he said.