It has been over a week since our group of pilgrims returned from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, and from what I can tell most of us are pretty well recovered from the fatigue of the trip. At the same time, we are only beginning to ponder and reflect on our experience and the graces came through our time in Rio. This week’s Criterion, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, has an article in which several of the pilgrims reflect on their experience; you can read that article here. This past weekend, I shared some of my own reflections in my homily at St. Agnes Church in Nashville, Indiana; you can listen to the homily here. And while I am still processing and praying about my World Youth Day experience, here are some initial reflections and ponderings.

Pilgrimage – In the Criterion article referenced above, one of the young adults in our group talks about how she came to experience our journey to World Youth Day as a pilgrimage, not a vacation. On a pilgrimage, the goal is to experience God, which often requires being stripped of our own expectations, desires, and comforts. Many things did not go as we thought they would during our time in Rio – and we had our share of sufferings and hardships along the way. Several times during the week, I found myself wondering whether the expense and the effort was worth it – did we really need to spend a considerable amount of money, sleep on classroom floors, take cold showers, and walk for miles on end in crowds of millions to grow in our faith? But in the end, it definitely was worth it – because we needed to get out of our comfort zones, including the normal places we pray and experience the Christian community, in order to listen to God with fresh and raw ears. Maybe we didn’t have to go to Rio de Janeiro to do this, but the challenges of a pilgrimage were just what was needed to open our hearts to God – at least for me, and I think for many of my fellow pilgrims as well.

catholic, with a small c – Another benefit of going so far away to an event like World Youth Day? There are very few comparable ways to experience the true universality of the Church – that the Church is small-c catholic. I might never have met Catholics from Pakistan had I not gone to World Youth Day – let alone pray with the Bishop of Islamabad – and witness their heroic witness to faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not often that you can have an hour-long conversation with a young man from Australia who is discerning the priesthood. Here in the US, we don’t really have opportunities to experience the way Catholics pray in Ghana – but at World Youth Day, the Archbishop of Accra, Ghana, spent the morning with us and presided at Mass – including a very memorable way of praying the Our Father! And I still don’t quite know what to make of an encounter with a young woman from Brazil who was so excited to meet me simply because I was a priest from the United States – she had never met a priest from the US before, and wanted to have her picture taken with me to prove that she met me! This is the small-c catholic Church, and there are few places you can experience it quite like World Youth Day.

Eucharist – I admit that the first couple days in Rio were rough – the fatigue of travel, the chaos of the Brazilian way of organizing things (which really means no organization at all), the stark simplicity of our accommodations, the cold and rainy weather, the fact that really nothing went the way we were expecting. But at the opening Mass on Tuesday – on Copacabana Beach with the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro – for me, everything changed. As I received the Eucharist at that Mass, a complete and overwhelming sense of peace came upon me. I knew that Christ was with us, and that when we were with Him, nothing else mattered. One of the great realities of our faith is that the Mass – and the Eucharist – is the same everywhere in the world. Thank goodness! At that Mass on Copacabana Beach, I was reminded how much we need the Eucharist – and how the grace of the Eucharist really can strengthen us and unite us to Jesus Christ. You don’t need to go halfway around the world to experience that, but if you do happen to go halfway around the world, it is a great comfort and strength to know that Christ will be there for you, just as He is when you are at home.