CHANDLER — From a spiritual and practical standpoint, the pilgrimage to Krakow, Poland was already underway even before the sendoff Mass began.
While some of the at least 10 groups from the Diocese of Phoenix were already on a pre-World Youth Day pilgrimage in Europe, those still stateside endured a comfortably full weeknight Mass in a parish experiencing air conditioning issues.
“We’re so happy that you’re here suffering with us. This is where we begin our pilgrimage,” Robert Corwin, director of youth and young adult evangelization at St. Andrew the Apostle, told the crowd before Mass. His home parish is sending 50 pilgrims to World Youth Day and hosted the sendoff liturgy July 12.
Several large fans throughout the church helped cool the place. It wasn’t the air temperature that stood out the most to pilgrims though. The crowd did. Pilgrims had spent weeks if not months or years actively preparing with their respective group that was as small as seven or so and as large as 105.
Putting them all together in one church further excited Kelsey Schaefer, for the journey. The 18-year-old from St. Andrew knew to expect crowds at World Youth Day — estimates vary up to 3 million — but seeing local pilgrims together made it a bit more real.
When Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares called all pilgrims forward for a special blessing, Schaefer remembers turning to her friend saying, “Look at all the new friends we’ll make.”
Friendship with each other and especially a friendship rooted in Christ and the saints are hallmarks of World Youth Day experiences. Despite its name, World Youth Day is a nearly week-long event offering catechesis, vocations fairs, reconciliation, Mass and other opportunities for prayer and dialogue.
The last one was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013. Bishop Nevares attended World Youth Day in Madrid five years ago in Madrid.
“It is an experience to which you cannot even imagine — to see a sea of vibrant young people alive for the faith,” Bishop Nevares told Phoenix’s pilgrims during his homily.
He described the shrieks, howling and carrying on when then Pope Benedict XVI came. “It was magnificent — a wonderful moment of an expression of faith that the young people have in the depths of their heart,” the bishop said.
He reminded pilgrims that the Catholic Church is known throughout the world. The bishop himself had just returned from meeting with Pope Francs and Pentecostal leaders in Rome.
At the World Youth Day sendoff Mass, Bishop Nevares prayed that Phoenix’s pilgrims have a safe and beautiful, holy experience. He also reminded them of a few packing essentials: to being the faith that’s deep in their heart, a hope to encounter Jesus and love for one another and for God.
“You, my brothers and sisters going on pilgrimage, will be infused with the Holy Spirit making you living stones on which Christ can build His Church. How important this experience of the World Youth Day will be for you,” the bishop said.
He forewarned them that their parents and local priests will expect much from them upon their return. That’d probably be okay with pilgrims like Callie Weager.
“I had a special calling to go because I’m Polish and I have a special devotion to [St.] John Paul II,” the 17-year-old from St. Thomas the Apostle Parish said.
The saint, who launched World Youth Day a year before encountering the faithful in Phoenix in 1987, is among 12 patron saints of the World Youth Day celebration. Weager wants to venerate saint relics while there and possibly touch her special rosary to them.
Rhane Echeverria, a St. Andrew the Apostle parishioner, is remaining open to experiencing everything on his first World Youth Day pilgrimage. He’s technically going as a chaperone, but he will be a pilgrim just the same.
The 20-year-old is nearly finished with college and he sees the pilgrimage as an opportunity to own his faith as he prepares to enter the real world. He has already found plenty of examples of ordinary Catholics who did extraordinary things with faith: the saints.
“It was fascinating how a few of them grew up in such poverty-stricken lives and still seemed to change part of their country and even the world,” Echeverria said about the patron saints of World Youth Day.
Ramon and Rosa Ramirez, itinerants responsible for the Neocatechumenal Way in the Diocese of Phoenix, might be among the few World Youth Day veterans of the area. They’ve been to every one since the global celebration came to Denver in 1993. They said they see the Divine Providence of God at work each time by bringing together the right people in faith through sacrifice, even if that means selling the family vehicle to have cover costs of the pilgrimage.
“It’s worth it because the life and the vocation is many times shaped by these pilgrimages,” Rosa said.
This year, they’re bringing 105 youth and chaperones from the Neocatechumenal Way at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glendale, Queen of Peace in Mesa and Blessed Sacrament in Tolleson. The group will stop in the Czech Republic, Australia and Hungry on their way to Poland.
Send your prayers. A multi-parish group that includes St. Joan of Arc, St. Theresa, St. Thomas the Apostle and others would be happy to take them.