I apologize for not being able to update the blog during our final days in Rio de Janerio – the wifi access at the school where we had catechesis was not working on Friday and Saturday. We are now back in the US, and after some good rest, here’s a summary of our final experiences at World Youth Day.
Friday was our third and final day of catechesis – this time with a bishop from the US – Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Colorado. As I’ve mentioned before, our catechesis site was quite an international group, and those of us from the US were definitely not in the majority. This diversity was also represented in our three bishop catechists – from Bangladesh, Ghana, and the US. Archbishop Aquila spoke on the theme of mission – how to take the message of the gospel throughout the world. Also joining us on Friday was Bishop Rufin Anthony of Islamabad, Pakistan. He was there with a group of pilgrims from Pakistan who were joining us for the English-language catechesis. As you might imagine, Catholics are a very small minority in Pakistan – Bishop Anthony’s diocese, which includes the capital of the country, is only 0.5% Catholic. One of the great blessings of World Youth Day is being able to meet, talk, and pray with Catholics from all over the world – before this week, I don’t think anyone in our group had met a Catholic from Pakistan, let alone a Pakistani Catholic bishop.
Following our final catechesis session and Mass, our group journeyed into the city of Rio de Janeiro for some sightseeing. All week, we had been hoping to be able to visit the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, but tickets were sold out. Friday afternoon, we tried to go to the train station that takes people to the statue to see if any tickets had become available, but it seems like everyone else in Rio had the same idea – so we had to content ourselves with views of the statue on Corcovado from afar. We then walked along the shore of one of the bays in Rio to see the famous mountain Sugarloaf – it was great to be able to walk without being in a crowd of millions! We also visited the Old Cathedral of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a church in Rococo design that served as the cathedral of the city from 1808 until 1976 and also as the imperial chapel for the Portuguese and Brazilian royal and imperial families. In the evening, Pope Francis led the Stations of the Cross on Copacabana Beach, but our group decided to forgo attending the Stations in order to spend an evening in the city. We broke up into smaller groups to go to dinner at various restaurants in the Lapa neighborhood, notable for its restaurants and music. We all enjoyed a quieter evening away from the crowds.
As I mentioned in a previous post, steady rain over several days forced the location of the final Vigil and Mass to be moved from a field outside Rio (Campus Fidei) to Copacabana Beach. So on Saturday, after a morning Mass at our catechesis site, we began the journey to Copacabana. Rather than the 8-mile walking pilgrimage that would have led us to the original Vigil site, we had only a walk of a little over 2 miles from our drop-off point in the Flamengo neighborhood to the beach. By the time we reached Copacabana in the early afternoon, there were already hundreds of thousands of people there – and countless more arriving every minute. After searching for quite a while, we found a spot on the beach for our group where we would spend the rest of that day and stay overnight in preparation for the final Mass on Sunday. Originally, the local authorities were suggesting that people not spend the night on the beach because of concerns that there would not be enough bathrooms, drinking water, and security – but when the tradition of World Youth Day is to spend the night outside in vigil, that’s what is going to happen! By the time we began Mass on Sunday morning, about 3.2 million people packed the entire 2.5-mile stretch of beach, plus all the roads along the beach.
Several members of our group – myself included – were able to see Pope Francis up close (just about 10 feet away from us!) as he drove in on the Popemobile before the Vigil on Saturday evening. We also enjoyed the chance to meet and talk with people from all over the world who had gathered on the beach, and some members of our group even spent some time in the water on Saturday afternoon. In the evening, we participated in the actual Vigil Prayer Service, which included music, witnesses by four young adults from Brazil, prayers, and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. If you can imagine how much noise a crowd of 3 million people can make welcoming Pope Francis – and it is a lot of noise! – that same crowd came to absolute silence during the time of Adoration. It was a beautiful and moving expression of our shared faith in the Eucharist and the ardent desire of young people to spend time in quiet prayer. Following the official Vigil, many members of our group gathering in a circle to pray Evening Prayer and Night Prayer on the beach before settling in for a night under the stars.
Sunday morning, the clergy in the group – two priests and two deacons – had to get up at 4:15 am in order to get to the vestment tent at 5 am to receive our vestments for the final Mass. We then stood in line until about 9 am before slowly making our way to the area for priests and deacons right in front of the sanctuary on the beach for the closing Mass. We arrived in our places only about 5 minutes before Mass started, but we made it! For me, the opportunity to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis on Copacabana Beach, with 3.2 million faithful present, will always be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Once again, the silent prayer of such a large crowd during the Eucharistic Prayer was remarkable.
Following the closing Mass, we made our way back to our bus, stopped for lunch at a Brazilian barbecue buffet, and then headed to the airport for our return flight home. We are definitely glad to be back, and anxious to share our experiences and the many graces that flowed during the pilgrimage. Over the next couple days, I hope to blog again with some overall impressions of World Youth Day and the lasting impact it will have on those of us who attended in person and the Church universal.