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 | By Carol Wiget

World Youth Day reflections

World Youth Day (WYD) is a global pilgrimage gathering youth (ages 16-35) from all over the globe to celebrate as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. In what is an incredible expression of the four marks of our faith, WYD captures the essence of what it means to be young and Catholic in the universal Church. Made possible by the efforts of so many across our diocese over 23 months, 65 pilgrims from the Diocese of Birmingham joined the 1.5 million pilgrims who traversed the globe to celebrate our faith with great hope and abundant joy. 

What does it mean to be a pilgrim? 

In his meeting with college students at WYD, Pope Francis said: “[Pilgrim] is a beautiful word, and one well worth reflecting on. To be a pilgrim literally means to put aside our daily routine and choose to set out on a different path, moving away from our comfort zone towards a new horizon of meaning. The notion of ‘pilgrimage’ nicely describes our human condition, for, like pilgrims, we find ourselves facing great questions that have no simple or immediate answers, but challenge us to continue the journey, to rise above ourselves and to press beyond the here and now.” 

The Highlights 

Being in the same space to pray with Pope Francis is indescribable. Imagine an area the size of 18 American football fields packed with 800,000 people. There is standing room only and the entire space is pulsating with the joy and energy of the young Church. Imagine 800,000 voices chanting in unison, “Esta es la juventud del Papa!” (This is the youth of the pope!”) when Pope Francis arrives. The Church is one as she cheers for her Good Shepherd, the successor to Peter. The love of Pope Francis for the young people is reciprocated by all present. When Pope Francis breaks into a smile, energized by the sight and sound of so many youth, the feeling is like what one might experience when entering your grandfather’s home. Even though you are surrounded by people, the pope’s words are meant for you, and you feel seen and loved by him.  

One of the greatest realizations of our pilgrimage is realizing that the same Christ we receive in the Eucharist is the Christ present in each one of us. Our group left with many strangers among us, but we returned home as friends. We shared this experience in a way that is challenging to convey with words to those who were not with us. We broke bread together, slept under the stars together, shared our resources with each other. The global Church is alive and vibrant, but here at home it is beautiful and full of joy. 

What has changed 

For many of our pilgrims, WYD was the first time leaving the country, the first time on an airplane, and the first time traveling without a parent. For all of us, this was a deviation from our daily routine, moving outside of our comfort zones to journey beyond the present.  

What made this experience different from a vacation is the attitude we took with us, and the hardships peppered throughout. In many ways, our pilgrimage mirrored that arduous path of the refugee. We consoled one another and constructed make-shift tents with whatever we had during extreme temperatures. We experienced hunger with a lack of consistent food. We endured long lines with the hope of joy at the end. We prayed countless Rosaries while traveling great distances on foot to reach our destinations. We made camp amongst hundreds of thousands of others, laying mere inches apart, awaiting the Vicar of Christ and the Eucharistic celebration of Holy Mass. When undertaken with a pilgrim attitude, these experiences were all part of the pilgrimage experience. We were able to face any obstacle with grace and patience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Everything done in the name of Christ became tolerable, an opportunity to offer someone up in prayer, or a moment to encounter God in another. Bishop Barron, addressing the U.S. pilgrims, encouraged us to see a long line or traffic jam as an opportunity to grow closer to God … and we did, frequently.  

The greatest tragedy would be for any of us to return unchanged by this incredible experience. Through continuing to reflect on our journey and sharing the WYD messages with others, our hearts can become more receptive to God and His plan for our lives. If we take to heart the words of Pope Francis, we can allow them to shape our faith. Pope Francis declared that there is a place for everyone in the Church. “Todos! Todos! Todos!” he cried, meaning “all.” There is room for everyone. This cry is a call to action. How can I invite others to find and live out their place in the Catholic Church? 

World Youth Day by the Numbers 

1.5 million      Number pilgrims estimated 

$260,000       Amount of money raised for our entire group 

40,000           Number of pilgrims from the United States 

65                  Number of pilgrims from the Diocese of Birmingham 

14                  Number of parishes in our diocese with representation at WYD 

8-10               Average number of miles walked per day 

2                    Number of missing suitcases upon return (both were recovered!) 

1                    Body of Christ celebrated with joy