There were so many things about tonight’s World Youth Day opening Mass that just don’t seem normal – or at the very least make for an extraordinarily rare experience. Mass with several hundred thousand people at which the Eucharist was quickly and efficiently distributed? Mass on a world famous beach (Copacabana) with those hundreds of thousands of people? In a language you don’t know (Portuguese)? With roaring waves just feet away, and a light drizzle through Mass? Did I mention we were on a beach – standing or sitting on sand for about six hours total? For Mass?

It really was a phenomenal experience and a perfect opening to World Youth Day. After quite a considerable amount of chaos and stress during our first 24 hours, today we experienced true grace and redemption. The accommodation sites are working out just fine – and many of our pilgrims have had enlightening and life changing encounters with local people. But for me, everything came together when we received the Eucharist. The Mass is the same everywhere in the Catholic world – and tonight, we benefited from that strength and grace amidst the challenges and struggles of the week. In his homily, the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro said that, for this week, the heart of the Church is in Rio – particularly through the presence of Pope Francis, for where Peter is, there is the Church. But the heart of the Church is also present here because of the young pilgrims from all corners of the globe – from China to Angola, from Pakistan to Australia,and everywhere in between. Our prayer is one. The Eucharist is one. The Church is one. What an amazing way to experience that unity during Mass on Copacabana Beach.

On a side note, we had quite a few interesting conversations because of our group flag.  Virtually every group has a large flag on a pole that they carry with them to identify where they are from and serve as a gathering point for the group. Rather than using the US flag, we decided to use a large Indiana flag. Quite a few people who saw our flag and didn’t recognize it came up to us asking what country we were from – and so we had a chance to tell them a little about the state of Indiana within the greater United States.

Catechesis begins Wednesday morning, and then we have a gathering of all the US pilgrims in the evening. On Thursday, we will see Pope Francis ourselves for the first time in Rio.