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 | By Mary D. Dillard

Handing on the faith

A small parish making a huge difference

While most Catholics are aware that the word “catholic” is synonymous with “universal,” few actually get to experience the Church’s universality firsthand, much less Catholics from a small town in northern Alabama. Yet, for 12 parishioners of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in St. Florian, the Church and all her glory will be on full display when they join others from the Diocese of Birmingham at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, this August.

World Youth Day traces its origins back to 1984 when Pope St. John Paul II decided to hold a gathering on Palm Sunday for youth in Vatican City as part of the Holy Year of Redemption, which marked 1,950 years after the Passion of Jesus. To the Holy See’s amazement, the expected 60,000 participants turned into 250,000.

The following year, the United Nations decided that 1985 would be an international year of youth. Capitalizing on the proclamation, the pope again called for a gathering of youth, and again, large numbers were drawn to St. Peter’s Square to spend time together in prayer and catechesis. After the success of the second gathering, Pope St. John Paul II instituted World Youth Day, and the first international World Youth Day was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1987.

Six years later, Denver, Colorado, was chosen to host World Youth Day 1993. At the time, Donna Peters, a life-long parishioner of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, had a daughter in high school. When she learned of the opportunity, Peters didn’t hesitate to allow her daughter to attend the youth gathering over 1,200 miles away. “I wanted her to experience the pleasure of being able to be Catholic and witness her faith to others,” she remembers. “Out here in a little community,” she explains, “we are such a minority.”

Peters’ daughter had such a wonderful experience in Denver, that in 2002 when Toronto hosted World Youth Day, Peters spearheaded the efforts to help the youth of St. Michael’s attend. The group of 15, which included Peters and her youngest daughter, raised funds for airline tickets, packed their backpacks, and camped out in classrooms. “It was just awesome,” she recalls. Unbeknownst to anyone present, the Toronto gathering would be Pope St. John Paul II’s last World Youth Day. Addressing those present, the saint remarked, “When, back in 1985, I wanted to start the World Youth Days, I imagined a powerful moment in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, Who is eternally young, and could learn from Him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people. … Millions of young people have taken part, and as a result have become better and more committed Christian witnesses.”

The words rang true for the St. Michael’s group. Upon their arrival home, they organized informational sessions after weekend Masses to share their experiences with the wider church community.

Looking back, Peters remembers, “Even though I thought I was going to encourage our youth, it turned out I received the reward. It made me appreciate being Catholic. ... People from countries of the world were all one! You hear it and think it, but to see it, to experience it ... I may be a doubting Thomas, but to see people from different countries with one common goal made our faith even more real.”

Over 20 years later, Peters was reading the One Voice and noticed the Diocese of Birmingham was organizing a pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2023. Remembering the positive effects the parish’s last pilgrimage bestowed, Peters wanted to give the parish’s small group of middle and high school youth an opportunity “to appreciate being Catholic.” She consulted with Abbot Emeritus Cletus Meagher, O.S.B., pastor of St. Michael’s, and he offered his full support, giving his blessing for various fundraisers and making calls for support from the altar.

Peters and the parish’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) hit the ground running. Yard sales, bake sales, after-Mass meals, and a raffle were held with robust support from the parish community. One family even donated $5,000 in support of the pilgrimage. Peters emphasizes that through all these efforts, the kids learned that if they were going to go, they needed to earn it. “They have gone from viewing World Youth Day as a trip to a pilgrimage,” observes Peters.

All the youth most certainly earned their place, yet one young man emerged as a leader. According to Peters, Tomás Padgett, an eighth-grade honors student and St. Michael’s parishioner, has an interest in the global impact of his faith and wishes to interact with youth from around the world. Peters insists that those interactions will help develop the next generation of Church leaders, and she believes Padgett and the St. Michael’s community will reap the benefits of the pilgrimage for years to come.

Abbot Cletus agrees: “[World Youth Day] is a good thing because it will increase their faith. They will come back tired and worn out, but they will come back enthusiastic, in the full sense of the word. It is from the Greek word entheos, meaning ‘to be in God.’ So they will be alive with a greater sense of vitality.”

To Abbot Cletus, the pilgrims will experience an environment in which they won’t feel embarrassed or intimidated. Everyone present will be there for the same purpose. “It’s sort of like a contagion that takes place,” says the abbot. “We hope it endures and plants a seed, which will grow.”

The seeds, however, are not planted without intention or care. Recounting a past interfaith Thanksgiving service held for students at St. Bernard Preparatory School in Cullman, the abbot tells of a particular service when a rabbi was asked to preach. The rabbi described thanksgiving in relation to the Jewish tradition, and said the first sign of thanksgiving is to pass on the faith to the next generation. “In essence,” says the abbot, “that is what is going on here. We are handing the faith onto the next generation.”

I am very excited for this trip to grow in my spiritual journey with the larger Catholic family! The journey will be long and will require me to prepare not only spiritually but physically. The preparation reminds me of how our Lord Jesus must have felt during His many teachings and while carrying the cross. I look forward to the experience to strengthen my faith and ultimately be a better Christian in my daily life.

Leslie Mitchell

I want to go to WYD to grow in my faith and to show my kids the meaning of being part of a universal Church. As Catholics in Alabama, it is difficult to see the impact and the reach that the Church has throughout the world.

Ana María Padgett

I want to go to WYD to meet the rest of the Catholic community. There’s not that many of us in Alabama, and I want to experience other cultures.

Tomás Padgett

I’m excited to go to Portugal to increase my faith and meet new people.

Miranda Padgett

I would like to express my appreciation in advance for this amazing opportunity to attend WYD in Portugal. A pilgrimage is something I thought was only in my dreams. However, because of the amazing support from the diocese and the St. Michael’s community I am getting the chance with my son to experience it. I know it will be life-changing, spiritually moving, and will bring me closer than ever to my faith and beliefs.

Erin Letson

Going to Portugal for WYD is important to me because I will get to experience it with my church friends. It will be a memory that I won’t ever forget, and I am so thankful to be going.

Kayden-Reed Letson

Attending WYD with my children and friends from our parish will be so special to me. I have always felt a closeness to the Virgin Mary, so I believe that traveling to Fatima, Portugal, to such a holy place, will help me become stronger in my faith and closer to God. I love being Catholic, and I want my children to see how universal the faith is, especially with other young Catholics.

Teresa Chaney

I am excited to go to Portugal because it was a place where God performed a miracle in front of the Fatima children and 75,000 other people. Going to Fatima will help me feel closer to God and Mary.

Whit Chaney

The most exciting thing about going on this pilgrimage for me is seeing the pope because I want him to give me special blessings.

Anne Margaret Chaney

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