“Viva essa experienca” (live this experience).
This is exactly what the 40 people from the Hispanic Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New Orleans who attended World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, did while in South America and plan to continue now that they are home.
“The pope is very clear that we only have today,” said attorney Miguel Elias, a member of the New Orleans group. “I think God, from this pilgrimage, invites me to enjoy life. … The pope said go against the current of the secularized world and stand strong for Jesus Christ.”
The pilgrims, led by Dominican Friar Sergio Serrano, director of the Hispanic Apostolate, experienced the sights and sounds of Brazil in addition to the main activities of World Youth Day from July 21-31.
They celebrated daily Mass and evangelized in the streets with guitars and sang songs they had practiced in Portuguese in advance of the trip in hopes of reaching out to native Brazilians. They also toured the Christ the Redeemer statue that welcomed pilgrims with open arms, the Basilica Aparecida that houses a statue of the Virgin Mary recovered in pieces by fishermen and the Aguas de Lindao.
They went rafting, even though the temperatures were a little chillier than expected, and encountered Pope Francis on the beach at a vigil July 27 and at the closing Mass July 28.
What struck the group most was witnessing Catholics worldwide worshipping together.
“(We were) seeing how Catholicism means universal, seeing the universal church there in Rio and being part of something so much bigger than you,” Angie Hernandez, 23, said.
Hernandez was awed by Pope Francis’ clarity of words.
“He speaks so clearly, so simply, that it makes it easier to follow,” she said, His message for Catholics was to “have hope; let the Lord surprise you; and to live a life of joy” and evangelize more.
“The pope was saying that Catholics tend to take a back seat, and we don’t announce our faith,” Hernandez said. “The pope did a good job to get us excited to live out our faith and live the goodness of God. I know I am afraid to evangelize, but I see how the pope sees an urgency in this and is depending on the youth.”
Elias brought his wife Eva and 12-year-old daughter Isabella, who witnessed other youth in love with God. He was gratified to see Isabella’s joy when she returned.
“Even though I can give her everything she wants, it was the Holy Spirit and God that is making her fall in love with the church,” he said.
Elias was surprised to witness the pope mixing so freely among the people, without concern for his safety. He called him a man convinced of his faith who is not afraid of dying.
“To see how humble the pope is,” he said, citing his decision to forego a limousine to ride in a small Fiat and take cold drinks from the crowd. “He has his feet on earth but his eyes on heaven – a true sign of Jesus Christ. He also comes across as sincere – that’s what the youth are looking for. The word becomes flesh in the pope. He gives flesh to the word so youth will realize that our faith is not a book 2,000 years old that doesn’t relate to today. … I could see that next generation (of Catholics) there that will carry one.”
“People were joyful, and people were happy,” he said. “It gives me hope that the church worldwide has youth in it.”
Raised money to attend
Several on the trip held fund raisers – a Brazilian party raised $10,000 and there were raffles and baked goods sales at Blessed Seelos Parish – to help defray costs.
One of the younger travelers, Carlos Bengoa, 12, a student at Holy Name of Jesus School and altar server at Blessed Seelos Church, said he wanted an encounter with Christ and heard the pope’s emphasis on making disciples of all nations.
“This trip was tremendous fun,” Carlos said. “I enjoyed proclaiming and preaching the good news of God. Some people might say it was boring to preach the good news of God, but on the pilgrimage, it was really fun.”
It also reinforced to him that other youth believed in Christ.
“We were surprised to see all those people from all over – China, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland, Austria – sharing our faith,” he said. “I realized that I am not the only one who is a Christian and has this faith.”
The pope’s idea to create a “culture of encounter,” also stuck with Elias.
“We can’t sit and wait,” Elias said. “We need to get in the streets and preach to people. People are walking away (from the church), and we need to bring them back. He (the pope) witnessed to the people in Rio. He wasn’t afraid.”
The fact that Pope Francis spoke in Friar Serrano’s native language delighted the priest.
“For me as Latino to listen to a people who speaks in Spanish is a big difference,” Friar Serrano said. “To be able to follow everything he said (in Spanish) was fantastic. … The pope speaks freely, and there is no reservation when he speaks. He feels like a friend who is talking to me.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.