The World Youth Day effect: Change for the better

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World Youth Day 2011 pilgrims have returned home from Madrid and are once again immersed in the rhythms of ordinary life, but their extraordinary experience has changed them.

Jeremy Longden
JEREMY LONGDEN with other pilgrims from St. George
Parish in Framingham, Mass.
“Being in the presence of the pope with other pilgrims from around the world—on the airfield the night before the closing Mass was the highlight for me,” says Jeremy Longden, who is 24 and a financial analyst from St. George Parish in Framingham, Mass. “I was surprised by the number of people that were present and I’m more open to the different ways of praying now. I’ve started praying more in my free time—I did so on the trip and now I’m doing it at home—sharing with other people.”

World Youth Day began in 1984 when now Blessed Pope John Paul II invited the young people from around the world to join him in St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday 1984, and 300,000 people responded. He invited them back again for Palm Sunday 1985, and on December 20, 1985 announced the institution of World Youth Day. The first official World Youth Day was also in Rome in 1986 and the first International World Youth Day was celebrated in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1987. An estimated two million pilgrims attended the most recent gathering in Madrid, August 16-21.

Highlights of World Youth Day Madrid included opening Mass in Cibeles Square presided over by the Archbishop of Madrid on August 16. The square hosted the welcoming of Pope Benedict XVI on August 18 and on the 19th pilgrims prayed the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) with famous statues brought in especially for the event. On August 20 pilgrims gathered at the aerodrome with the pope for a vigil and Eucharistic adoration in preparation for the closing Mass the next morning. Pope Benedict XVI presided with thousands of bishops and priests concelebrating and blessed and sent forth this generation of disciples into the world.

Faith ignited

On the Pacific coast, Bernice Aguas, a young-adult ministry volunteer for the Archdiocese of San Francisco was touched
Bernice Aguas
BERNICE AGUAS, left, from St. Thomas More Parish in San Francisco, enjoying the WYD Saturday Night Vigil with Pope Benedict XVI at Cuatro Vientos Air Base in Madrid. An estimated 1.5 million pilgrims gathered for the evening of prayer and Eucharistic adoration prior to the closing Mass the following day.
by the diversity of pilgrims. “The youth inspired me—how can we work together to impact the world,” Aguas reflects. “It helped me listen to God—conversations with others from all over the world ignited a fire.”

Aguas is a parishioner at St. Thomas More Parish in San Francisco which is on Brotherhood Way—alongside other denominations of faith, a mosque, and a Greek orthodox church. “The perspectives of Catholics from all over the world reinforced my passion for interfaith dialogue,” Aguas continues. “Since the WYD experience I’ve been open to wherever God calls me and in meeting other people discerning a vocation, I realized I’m not the only person and I’ll continue my prayer discerning. WYD gave me more options but helped me to deepen my prayer life. I needed to learn to be still and listen.”

cynthia martinezPACKED, ready, and on the way to the WYD vigil at the aerodrome August 20, pilgrims from the Archdiocese of New York carry the flag of their heritage—the Dominican Republic. On the left, Cynthia Martinez, 31, director of formation of youth ministry leaders was born in New York City, but spent summers in Santiago with her parents' family. "It was great to enjoy the experience with others who wanted to embrace it as I did," says Martinez. "It's one thing to be able to proclaim your faith with so many who feel and experience as you do. It's harder when you come home and so many are apathetic. Our challenge now is how to live with the same enthusiasm as in Madrid."

Sharing their joy with others

Seminarian Dominic Buckley, 26, from the Diocese of Orlando, Florida had to get special permission from then rector Father John Noonan (now bishop of Orlando) to begin his first semester at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami late so that he could attend WYD in Germany in 2005. “It helped me and it changed me,” Buckley says. “I want to give to others. It defies our worldly logic. What gives me satisfaction and joy is giving to others what I have experienced as good—God.”

Buckley spent his five weeks’ pastoral assignment in 2007 on a mission trip to the sister Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. It’s where he met Alcibiades Delgado Furca,20 and Antonio “Caliz” Pinales Delgado, 19. “Alcibiades was asking me questions as we walked from one village to the next. He was curious as to whether it was possible for him to attend WYD and he was so sincere with an honest curiosity,” Buckley says, “And I taught Caliz to play guitar. I knew that WYD Australia and Madrid were not for me to go. My main drive was to help others go.”

In 2010 Buckley’s pastoral assignment was at St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Altamonte Springs, Florida and he was able to raise the funds for his two friends to go to Madrid. Provision was made for him to attend as well. The friends didn’t get to meet there; however, Buckley received a letter from them. “The letter is short and simple and full of great affection and total gratitude,” says Buckley. “It’s obvious that something has happened to them just by the way they’re talking about their experience.”
Pilgrims from Dom. Rep.
THROUGH THE STEWARDSHIP of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Altamonte Springs, Florida and a sister Diocese of Orlando seminarian friend, Dominic Buckley, Alcibiades Delgado Furca, left, and Antonio “Caliz” Pinales Delgado from the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic were able to leave their mountains at home for the summit experience of World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid.

“‘We want to express our profound gratitude for making this possible,’” the letter reads, “‘this great privilege to take two youths from the middle of the mountains in the Dominican Republic to participate in this World Youth Day. Esteemed and very much loved friend, receive a warm greeting on the part of the pilgrims from the hills.’”

The highlight of WYD for Buckley was morning prayer in Retiro Park. “We were all together at prayer at the center and I felt totally embraced by the church of Orlando and the universal church,” Buckley says. “I realized that we’re going to go back to central Florida and live this mountaintop and live it together, and I feel better about becoming a priest in Orlando because I will see the faces of those I will serve and who will serve me.”

The power of the Masses

Tiffani Blake is a 30-year-old college administrator who is a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Harlem, New York. This was her first WYD. “I must say," says Blake, "the Mass of English
Tiffani Blake
NEW YORK meets Texas in a train station in Madrid. "The American flag attracted us," explained Tiffani Blake, far left, a pilgrim with the contingent from the Office of Black Ministry for the Archdiocese of New York who gathered with a group from a
Texas parish.
speaking countries with New York’s Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan presiding was the highlight of WYD for me. There were so many people gathered who could all communicate well with one another from all over the world. An experience like this helps. We’re not to leave the experience in Madrid. We’re supported in our beliefs and not alone. We need to take one step at a time and not get discouraged. We really can change the world.”

Christopher Wallace, 28, is in his theology year at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass. and from Our Lady of Good Council Parish in Methuen, Mass. This was his first WYD as well. “The highlight for me was the papal Mass for seminarians—the camaraderie,” Wallace says. “After the Mass was over, 5,000 seminarians in one voice were singing the universal song for the pope, Christus Vincit. After I got back to the U.S., I realized we can’t go back to being the same person we were—that thought hit me in a new way. It was pretty powerful and I keep going back to it. The complexity of my spiritual life—I’m noticing some of the things I was doing before the trip—I’m not doing them now.”
Christopher Wallace
WYD PILGRIMS from the Archdiocese of Boston enjoyed an excursion to Toledo, in the background. On the left is seminarian Christopher Wallace next to newly ordained Father Carlos D. Suarez, parochial vicar of Christ the King Parish in Brockton, and seminarian, David Bearse.

Wallace is looking forward to his priestly ordination in 2013. “I’m confirmed in my vocation, as a result of the trip,” he says. “I’m looking forward to going on more World Youth Days as a priest—leading a pilgrimage. It’s given me the inspiration to lead more young people to Christ through the WYD experience.”

The body of Christ revealed

Cherie Montoya, who says she absolutely loves ministry, celebrated her 35th birthday on August 18 on her WYD pilgrimage. She has been the youth minister at St. Mark Parish in Westminster, Colo. for the past seven years and is married with two children. With another chaperone she led a group of nine: five high school seniors and four young adults to Madrid. She had attended WYD in Denver in 1993 as a high school senior.

cherie montoya with Bishop Conley
CHERIE MONTOYA, bottom left, with Bishop Conley.
“For the Stations of the Cross,” Montoya says, “we were close enough to see Pope Benedict and my students were inspired by who carried the cross—at a station acknowledging the cross of disasters, people from the Japan and Haiti earthquakes carried the cross.

Verbum Dei Missionary Sister Karla Felix-Rivera, who is 32, led a group of 47 pilgrims from San Francisco State University and distant colleges around the country. “The highlight was the young-adult experience of being one in faith with others from around the world,” Sister Felix-Rivera says. “They were all graduate and post-graduate students who are excited to guide other young adults wherever they live. God spoke to each of them. As their awareness of God grew, they woke up to God’s presence in their lives.”

Since returning home, Sister Felix-Rivera has started several prayer groups with students spending 40 minutes meditating
Verbum Dei pilgrims
VERBUM DEI Missionary Sister Karla Felix-Rivera, front row second from the left with her WYD pilgrimage group of students in the Trinity Chapel of Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity Theological Center in Loeches, Spain - 20 minutes from Madrid. "This photo was taken Monday, August 22, the day after the closing Mass of WYD with Pope Benedict XVI and at the end of our final pilgrimage Mass," Sister Felix Rivera explained. "We had a day of reflection and group sharing. The stories were powerful since it was evident that God had shaped and changed their lives through the trip."
on scripture before going to school and work twice per week. “WYD has really renewed me in many ways,” she says. “The church really has a future—helping individuals one on one. I’m excited, renewed to dream more and help young adults seek commitment; we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge them with God.”

Renewal, commitment, inspiration, and a broader perspective of the vast diversity of the church: By all accounts these are the spiritual gifts of World Youth Day. A new crop of pilgrims has begun preparing for World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro. The theme for the July 21-29, 2013 gathering: “Go and make disciples of all peoples” (Matthew 28:19). Some of those just back from Madrid have already begun to do just that.

Editor's note: Please offer your comments by clicking the comment link below. Tell us what your experiences were at the recent or past World Youth Days or at any Catholic youth gatherings. How did the experience change or inspire you?

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Mother Mercy


MOTHER MERCY of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará attended World Youth Day 2011 with more than 1,000 youth and religious, representing almost all of the 40 countries where her community is present.

“It was so amazing for our young people to interact with others from so many different countries,” Mother Mercy says. “We saw a group of young people from Egypt and the U.S. singing and shouting; then groups from France and Germany joined in. Their love for their Church, their God, and therefore each other was truly beautiful.”

It was at WYD 1993 that Mother Mercy—then Mary Elizabeth McDunnough—realized her call. She was working as a certified public accountant in New York City and participatING in a young adult group at St. Brigid Parish in Westbury that gathered weekly for Bible study. “This whole spiritual world opened up. When the Holy Father [Blessed Pope John Paul II] came to Denver our whole group went. World Youth Days are so important—to see young people, young religious, young families and to see old religious and priests and you see such joy—you see church.”

An elderly Filipino nun praying Morning Prayer attracted McDunnough’s attention. “She asked, ‘Do you want to pray with me?’ and she taught me to pray the Liturgy of the Hours,” says Mother Mercy. “She was the key to my vocation. I was praying in unity with Jesus and she showed me that and opened my life to dedicate it to God.”

McDunnough entered religious life in August 1994 and professed her final vows on Oct. 21, 2001. She is now Mother Mercy assigned to Rome as a member of the general council of the order responsible for fundraising and missions.

The highlight of WYD 2011 for her was the vigil on August 20 in the aerodrome. “Almost 2 million young people gathered in the heat of the desert sun with no shade, lack of water, long lines for the bathroom, dirt everywhere, and then to top it off, a super storm,” Mother Mercy says. “At one moment, I saw three lightning bolts come down at once. The field was surrounded by an energy that wanted us to leave, that wanted us to be afraid. But these amazing young people stood, they kneeled, they prayed and nothing was going to move them. They wanted to be with and listen to and learn from their Pope, the Vicar of Christ.

“Then the most beautiful monstrance I’ve ever seen rose up from under the stage and 2 million people in silence prayed to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Our Lord spoke with the youth in their hearts — you could see it in their faces. I believe that it was a totally supernatural event. These young people were not moved by any human reason to be at this event—they were there because they were moved by faith. Young people want to serve God and God is still calling.”


Laura Dodson is a freelance journalist living in Melbourne, Florida.




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