ROCKY HILL – Representatives of five parishes described World Youth Day as the ultimate pilgrimage for young people.
Two groups from the Archdiocese of Hartford traveled nearly 5,000 miles to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July to the 13th international youth gathering, an event that started in 1985 when Pope John Paul II welcomed the youth of the world to Rome. The groups gathered again earlier this month to share their memories and experiences.
Steve DiMotta, coordinator of religious education and youth ministry at St. Rose of Lima Parish in New Haven, led a group representing that parish. Sharon Gagne, youth minister at St. James in Rocky Hill, organized a group representing St. James as well as Holy Infant in Orange, St. Bartholomew in Manchester and St. Christopher in East Hartford.
Ms. Gagne, who has participated in five World Youth Days , in Denver, Toronto, Cologne, Sydney and Madrid, described the pilgrimage as an incredible faith journey.
As part of their journey, young people leave their families and the comforts of home to travel long distances seeking to increase their spirituality. Along the way, they make sacrifices and face such hardships as hunger, pain, exhaustion and extreme weather conditions. During the pilgrimage, they also strive to learn more about their faith and share their faith with others, said Ms. Gagne.
Even though they were heading for Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach, "It was not a vacation," she said.
Almost immediately after they left New Haven, members of the St. Rose of Lima youth group faced a series of obstacles on their way to South America.
Weather delays, airline equipment malfunctions and even an airport closing held up their arrival by two days, said Sinead Brennan, a freshman at American University in Washington, D.C., and a member of the St. Rose of Lima youth group.
The hardships were worth it after they arrived, she said.
"There were so many people from different countries and nationalities, but they were all connected as Catholics by faith. You could see it on their faces that they felt like God was a part of them," said Miss Brennan.
Realizing that so many people are connected to God and each other was an uplifting contrast to what one often sees in the world and in people today, she said.
While they were in Rio, the groups experienced other challenges that might be expected at a very crowded venue.
"One day we stood in line for three hours to use a restroom, and another day we waited five hours for food," said Ms. Gagne.
Unusual weather, including two days of rain and lower-than-normal temperatures, didn’t dampen the pilgrims’ enthusiasm. Rain turned the "Field of Faith" in Guaratiba, where the overnight vigil and closing Mass were to be celebrated, into mud. Organizers were forced to relocate those events to Copacabana Beach.
All of the inconveniences paled in contrast to the grand nature of the event, the pilgrims agreed as they recapped their trip. None complained about the physical challenges or discomforts; instead, they reflected on momentous facets of their faith journey.
"There are really no words to describe being with 3.5 million other people that share my faith," said Ginamarie Garabedian, of St. Christopher Parish. "There are people all over the world that believe what I believe."
The people spoke different languages and some greet people differently, with a kiss on the cheek rather than a handshake, said Ron Petrillo, of Holy Infant Parish. But they all came together to share the same Mass.
"It was a great experience to sit at Mass and look around and see so many people [worshiping together]," he said.
The travelers met priests from such countries as Iraq, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and the Philippines.
"I met some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life from all over the world," said Joe Garabedian, also a parishioner at St. Christopher. "It doesn’t matter how you are brought up or where you are from. It’s all about our faith, and that’s what brings us all together. It shows that our Church is alive and well."
Throughout the six-day gathering, a variety of spiritually inspiring and educational activities were offered. Catechetical sessions were presented on three consecutive mornings. In the afternoons and evenings, shows and music programs were offered, as were opportunities for prayer and reconciliation.
Ms. Gagne and members of her group were invited to assist bishops in three separate catechetical sessions. In preparation, they communicated with bishops in Bangladesh, Ghana and Denver via email. At the sessions in Rio, they presented thematic skits and role-playing exchanges, and provided music that corresponded to topics that the bishops selected and discussed in their homilies.
"We were perfectly prepared for what we needed to do to minister to the people," said Ms. Gagne, who has worked with bishops to prepare catechetical sessions at several previous World Youth Day events. "God provides us with the people who need to be there."
One of the most popular traditions among World Youth Day attendees is exchanging national objects. Flags, key chains, pins or bracelets brought from home open the door to meeting people, communicating national heritage and learning about other cultures, they said.
"Everyone wanted to trade something American," said Ann Petrillo, of Holy Infant Parish. "People said, ‘We love America,’ and it was really nice."
They also carried world maps and asked people they traded with or met to sign their name on their native country. They collected signatures from all over the world.
The travelers were thrilled to see Pope Francis and were awed by his interaction with people in the crowd, they said.
"We saw the pope five times, and I think that is the most times he’s been seen at any World Youth Day," said Cynthia Celone, of Holy Infant.
"He seems like a very people person," said Ms. Gagne. "He kept getting in and out of the popemobile and stopped to say hi or kiss babies. While we were waiting for him to get closer to where we were standing, he stopped, put on a sombrero and greeted pilgrims. A few minutes later, he put on a lei that someone had given him."
Pope Francis addressed the crowds several times during the week and at a prayer vigil the evening before the closing Mass. The groups from the archdiocese of Hartford abandoned their hotel rooms for the overnight vigil and slept on Copacabana Beach with over a million other people.
The closing Mass that Pope Francis celebrated was attended by an estimated three and a half million people, an unprecedented sight that participants will long remember.
"Contrary to what people say, our Church is strong and World Youth Day helps us stay strong," said Mr. Garabedian. "The experience helped strengthen my faith and I am more confident to be Catholic."
Youth group members and Ms. Gagne are already talking about attending the next World Youth Day, which will be held in 2016 in Krakow, Poland. They are planning fund-raising initiatives and Ms. Gagne plans to update a book she wrote in 2011, The Ultimate Pilgrimage for Catholic Youth.