Joshua Schipper
Video/Digital Content/Graphic Design Producer
September 5, 2023 // Diocese

WYD Pilgrims Recall Highlights of Their Epic Journey

Joshua Schipper
Video/Digital Content/Graphic Design Producer

More than a month after their journey to Portugal, pilgrims to World Youth Day continue to reap the fruits of their journey. Reflecting on their time in Europe, several pilgrims cite renewed perspective about the Church and a strengthened faith life as some of the numerous impacts of the trek.

Melissa Vazquez said one of the highlights of World Youth Day was reading at a Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert Barron. She also noted that participating in Eucharistic adoration with all the U.S. pilgrims was particularly moving.

‘Praising the King’

Melissa Vazquez, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Fort Wayne, said that, of the many things she experienced during the pilgrimage, her visit to Fatima impacted her the most.

“I think it was just so awesome [to see] where it actually happened. And also, I just can’t believe we went to where Mary was – where she appeared. It was just so amazing.”

Vazquez also mentioned that the event for U.S. pilgrims with Eucharistic adoration touched her, as well.

“It was just so beautiful. When He came out, and we were starting to get prepared, when we were getting ready to see Him, I started to cry. It was so beautiful.”

Exploring historic, sacred architecture also proved to be a unique internal experience for Vazquez.

“When I went to monasteries or different churches, I felt like I was – it’s kind of cheesy – but I felt like I was like a princess in a castle, and I was just praising the king. It was a beautiful experience to see all these beautiful monasteries and shrines and churches.”

During her travels, Vazquez met a group from Slovenia and learned about the various sacrifices they made to participate in World Youth Day.

“They had to go to different stations, like different trains and buses around Europe. They didn’t have the luxury that we had. They had to sleep in a school. … And they had no heat or anything. I just think that was impactful for me because you don’t know how lucky you are until you meet other people.”

Among other notable experiences she had were reading at a Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert Barron and watching Matt Maher perform in a stadium with her fellow pilgrims.

“It was so amazing to see so many people around the world praising God, and the Holy Spirit was there, and it was just so beautiful.”

Vazquez said that, in order to prepare for the journey financially, she sold bracelets and applied for a scholarship from the diocese. Spiritually, she began to go to adoration and pray the Rosary more often. Reflecting on her spiritual growth after the pilgrimage, she said she has begun praying the Liturgy of the Hours more often.

Photos by Joshua Schipper
Father Zachary Rathke, who brought 30 pilgrims to World Youth Day from St. Adalbert Parish in South Bend, said the difficulties and challenges faced by his pilgrims helped to build bonds between them.

‘When You Suffer Together, You Bond’

Holy Cross Father Zachary Rathke helped to lead the biggest parish delegation from the diocese, with 30 pilgrims traveling from St. Adalbert Parish in South Bend. He said that, despite several obstacles his group encountered on the pilgrimage, this suffering helped the pilgrims bond.

“We had, by the end of the trip, of the 30, we had four couples. A couple of them were already dating before, but there were two new ones – like brand new ones,” Father Rathke said. “I was reflecting on that, and just reflecting on the group as a whole. It made me think about my family. My dad and my brother were in the military. It’s a very clear experience that when you suffer together, you bond, especially when it’s not like suffering against someone. You’re suffering with someone.”

He recalled one of the most impactful moments in Lisbon was when his pilgrims saw Pope Francis.

“Just about all of them had tears dripping down their faces, and they were hugging each other. I had seen Pope Francis back in 2013, a few months after he had become the pope. I remember it was cool to see him, but I wasn’t crying. Just to witness them be so moved by this man, who’s the Vicar of Christ that represents Christ Himself here on earth, and to see the youth so moved by that, brought tears to my own eyes. I didn’t cry the first time I saw Pope Francis, but I did when I saw our youth see him.”

Father Rathke said that, although his parish community
is poor, a wildly successful fundraising campaign made the pilgrimage possible. He personally invited people by phone to make donations, and the youth led food sales and a “massively successful” raffle. That, along with some help from Bishop Rhoades, helped the parish raise around $140,000.

“I think that that generosity came from the grace of God working in people’s hearts – and a sign that people desire the youth to have these kinds of experiences that will lead them to a life of faith.”

At one of the “Rise Up” sessions, Elianna Noll talked to a local bus driver who had fallen away from the Church about why she practices the Catholic faith. The bus driver told her that while he thought he would be annoyed with the busy streets caused by World Youth Day, he expressed how beautiful it was to see people singing and dancing with joy and peace.

Simple Moments

Ava Mondock, a parishioner from St. Charles Borromeo in Fort Wayne, said she was “super excited” to talk to Bishop Robert Barron as part of a panel discussion about “social friendship” during one of the “Rise Up” catechesis sessions. The conversation drifted toward social media, which, unlike the majority of her peers, Mondock does not participate in. While unable to answer the bishop’s questions directly, she was able to offer some unique insight, which she expanded upon in a later interview.

“I don’t see other people’s vibes presented on social media. Anything I hear from my friends, they directly tell me, and so it’s more of a community thing,” Mondock said.

She recalled that one of her favorite experiences on the pilgrimage was when her small group split up, and Father Dennis DiBenedetto led them to a monastery. They found a chapel, then started chanting.

“I think that simple moment in the simple monastery was my favorite part, because I’m definitely not one for crowds,” Mondock said. “And it made it hard. It’s definitely beautiful to see everyone, but it was hard to experience Mass and it was hard to experience adoration with the big crowds, because I think I like the simpler better.”

During the event to welcome Pope Francis, Mondock met a few Portuguese pilgrims who asked several questions about life in the United States. Mondock and her fellow pilgrims asked them about some unique features of Portuguese churches.

“It was really great, because they have never left the country, so they were just all curious. They were like, ‘Oh, we were so excited to meet Americans,’ which is also kind of a weird thing to experience.”

Unique among her generation, pilgrim Ava Mondock, who does not use any social media, shared observations about her peers’ use of the platforms to Bishop Robert Barron on a panel about “social friendship.”

Universality of the Church

Elianna Noll, another panelist who spoke to Bishop Barron, said that her opportunity to speak to the bishop was her favorite part of the pilgrimage.

“I loved being able to speak with him, not just one on one, but in a more public setting, and talk about such a broad topic, especially social media, which is a really awesome topic.”

She said it seemed that the crowd received the discussion very well, as did Bishop Barron.

“He also seemed like he was getting something out of it, which is also super cool, because you wouldn’t expect someone as big as Bishop Barron to get something out of ‘little you,’ but it was just super cool, and he is so personable.”

To prepare for the pilgrimage, Noll participated in a fundraiser at her parish and raised money from family and friends. Spiritually, she prepared with prayer.

“I really wanted to focus this trip on not just my relationship
with God but with Mary, because of Fatima. And so, in doing that, I tried to pray a Rosary every single day. There were some days I failed with only a decade, but I would try to pray a Rosary every single day and ask for intercessions, and kind of just ask for help.”

Noll said that the biggest takeaway from the pilgrimage was the universality of the Church.

“It’s not something you understand until you really get there. And it was so beautiful, seeing all the different people coming in and realizing how many different people God touches every single day, and how many people that He loves. And then, converse to that, you see how many people that actually love God and share in that love.”

Another experience came when she greeted a bus driver at a “Rise Up” session. He spoke Portuguese and Spanish but knew very little English. Noll knows a little bit of Spanish, but no Portuguese. She said they spent around 40 minutes talking to each other. Whatever he did not know how to say in English, he would say in Spanish, and Noll could understand him and respond in English or Spanish.

“We were able to understand each other, not by our first language but by our second.”

Through their conversation, she found out that he had been baptized Catholic but was no longer practicing. He asked Noll why she continues to practice her faith, and she explained. The bus driver mentioned that he thought he would be a bit annoyed by the additional traffic caused by World Youth Day, but he expressed how beautiful it was to see people singing and dancing with joy and peace.

“It was just such a beautiful thing to say with, you know, three different languages.”

Reflecting on her pilgrimage, Noll said her “biggest takeaway is that there can be this peace within the world. It is possible: It just gives you a little taste of heaven. And it’s so beautiful.”

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