World Youth Day: ‘an experience you cannot get elsewhere’

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Pope Francis waves to the thousands of youth as he passes by during the opening activities of World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Leelah Halsell-Duncan

More than 30 pilgrims from the Diocese of Nashville celebrated the gift of the universality of the Church as they gathered with more than a million fellow Catholics around the world in Lisbon, Portugal, for World Youth Day 2023 July 29 through Aug. 9.

Father Gervan Menezes, director of campus ministries for the diocese, and many University Catholic students also attended. 

Throughout the trip, the pilgrims participated in all kinds of events and activities, including a visit to Fatima where the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children; a visit to Santarem, the site of a Eucharistic miracle; and World Youth Day activities with Pope Francis, including Mass, adoration, and the Stations of the Cross.

“The experience is hard to describe,” said Shelby Conner, associate director of the Office of Faith Formation. “It was an experience you cannot get elsewhere. Each day brought its own blessings and challenges, and we just went with it knowing that God had something great in store for each of us.  

“Fatima, particularly, was a really great way to root ourselves and focus on the reason we were there,” she continued. “The town was incredibly peaceful and provided ample opportunities for prayer and reflection.”

“The prayerful atmosphere of Fatima was a great beginning as we stepped into the more challenging and difficult part of the pilgrimage,” added Jordan Montenegro, assistant director of faith formation for youth and young adult ministry. “Additionally, the whole event allowed the pilgrims to see the universality of the Church, to see all the different cultures and countries coming together as one Church.”  

Fatima Serrano, a parishioner of Sagrado Corazón Church and a junior at Cumberland University, noted the candlelight procession at Fatima as the part of the trip that stood out most to her.

“It was so beautiful to see all those people there with their candles praying to her and Jesus, but the best part was hearing those prayers in so many different languages,” Serrano explained. “That, to me, was so eye-opening because all those people were praying to one God but in so many languages. It was just beautiful knowing how big the Catholic faith is and how much bigger it can be.”

As World Youth Day activities began on Tuesday, Aug. 1, the pilgrims were able to see Pope Francis and even view relics of multiple saints, including St. John Paul II, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Therese of Lisieux, and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Seeing the relics is what Leelah Halsell-Duncan, a senior at Father Ryan High School and a parishioner of St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory, said was most special for her.

“What was really cool was that they were having adoration with the relics off to each side in front of the altar for you to pray at,” Halsell-Duncan said. “I felt this unexplainable feeling in adoration that night that just made my heart so joyful and so light.

“This pilgrimage was so beautiful, and everything I could’ve asked for,” she continued. “One thing that I really loved, too, was the opening Mass. I was worried that I would be distracted by it not being in English, but it ended up being so powerful and one of my favorite things we got to be a part of.”

The Diocese of Nashville had more than 30 pilgrims attend the multi-day event. Submitted photo

While this trip to World Youth Day was a first-time experience for most of the pilgrims, for Yuliana Garcia-Godinez, a parishioner of St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin, it was her second chance to go, having attended World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada, in 2002, as a teenager. This time, however, was more special as she experienced it with her 17-year-old son, Humberto Garcia-Godinez.

“The whole thing definitely exceeded my expectations; to the max, the greatest gift I could have lived during those days,” Garcia-Godinez said. “My Church, our Church is alive, it’s young, and it’s big.

“Sometimes we focus on our day-to-day activities, center ourselves in our communities that we forget we are really universal,” she said. “People from all over the world, together in prayer, living and praising Jesus and saying, ‘Yes, I am Catholic, and we are here to proclaim our faith.’”

World Youth Day activities also included the opportunity for pilgrims to hear live music throughout. For this, several musicians throughout the Diocese of Nashville were featured, including Matt Maher, PJ Anderson, and Sarah Kroger, parishioners of St. Joseph Church in Madison, and Ryan Tremblay, a parishioner of Mother Teresa Church in Nolensville.

Anderson completed his fifth World Youth Day since he was young, and this was his third time to share his music, having previously performed at World Youth Days in Krakow, Poland, and Panama City, Panama.

“I love the whole experience of World Youth Day. The excitement of overcrowded streets, music happening everywhere, the Pope flying over in a helicopter, etc.,” said Anderson, noting that this trip was extra special because he was accompanied by his wife and children. “But, the most beautiful thing is being a part of and seeing the immense crowds, over 1 million Catholics coming to pray, grow in faith, have fun, and be close to the pope.”

Throughout the event, Anderson played several times, including for catechetical sessions and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ American gathering with Bishop Robert Barron. The most poignant performance, however, came when he was asked to play on the main stage, known as Colina do Encontro, right after Pope Francis finished leading the 800,000 pilgrims in the Stations of the Cross.

“It was quite a thrill to sing, pray, and lead music for the biggest crowd that I have ever had the blessing to be in front of. I was able to go to confession right before, which brought a lot of peace over my soul in what could have been a nervous time,” Anderson said. “I texted a friend the morning of, when it actually set in that I was playing right after the Pope. I told him that I felt excited, but undeserving.

The trip included a procession with the Blessed Mother. Submitted photo

“His response humbled me and gave me peace. He said, ‘PJ, you are undeserving. … We all are. There’s something beautiful in that,’” he recalled. “How true is that? We are all undeserving, yet, Jesus still loves us. He still comes to us and offers us His love and the promise of eternal salvation.

“That is why there is such excitement in the air at World Youth Day. We all come to praise the one who made the way for us, who promises us eternal life even though we are undeserving.”

Tremblay also previously performed at World Youth Day in Poland and World Youth Day in Panama. 

“The energy from the youth was infectious. This is always the case at World Youth Day, and, especially after the event in Portugal was postponed by one year due to the pandemic, the global Church seemed more alive and ready for a celebration than ever before,” Tremblay said. “There was a spirit of gratitude in the air as we all gathered once again to celebrate our Catholic faith in peace and harmony. You can’t help but feel the unity among all the participants and the joy it brings to all who are in attendance. It’s always a gift to be there.”

“World Youth Day is such a unique opportunity for the youth of our time to gather together and celebrate our Catholic faith in a special way,” he continued. “In the Nicene Creed, we profess, ‘We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.’ These are the four marks of the Church, and World Youth Day gives us all the opportunity to witness the magnitude of who we are and what our mission is as Catholics worldwide. 

“It’s often said, ‘We’re all in this together,’ and World Youth Day gives everyone who attends the opportunity to see that that is truly the case in the Church.” 

As the week came to a close, the pilgrims had different reflections.

“This week has been packed with awesome experiences, some of which I expected coming into the trip, but many surprises as well. Spending time in Fatima, seeing Pope Francis, and meeting Catholics from around the world have been fantastic,” said Ben Larson, a parishioner of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Franklin. “Equally fantastic have been the unexpected events, like having the opportunity to venerate first-class relics of some of the greatest saints who ever lived.

“Catholic culture is amazing because it stands above social culture,” he added.

Halsell-Duncan said she learned some very important things.

“World Youth Day taught me patience, and God is in every little thing I do throughout the day. I just wasn’t taking the time to slow down, look, and listen for him,” she said. “World Youth Day has taught me about the importance of prayer every day, and how, even just being back a few days, having a prayer routine has made my days more joyful.”

“My biggest takeaway from this trip is to really trust God because life is not easy, and there will be times when you want to give up, but you can’t because He never gave up and He suffered for us,” Serrano added. “Trusting Him and offering what you are going through will help you get through that situation a lot smoother.

“This trip really helped me grow in my faith,” she continued. “Before this trip, I prayed to God and gave thanks, but after the trip I can tell my relationship has grown in a way that I pray to Him throughout the day compared to before. But I also seem to be more at peace with myself and my day.”

José Arias, one of the youth coordinators of Sagrado Corazón, learned just what it means to have a difference between a vacation and a pilgrimage, noting how the trip was “full of blessings.”

“I got to experience both social and intimate moments with God which helped me recharge spiritually,” Arias said. “Through this trip, I got to do two things. One, take back home new ideas and experiences to share. Two, it helped me realize a few things I would take for granted back home.

“Overall, this was a life-changing experience that all who can live it should give themselves the opportunity to.”

Through it all, as Garcia-Godinez did, the pilgrims were able to leave with the words of Pope Francis.

“‘Dear young people, I wish I could look each of you in the eye and say: ‘Do not be afraid!’ But I can tell you something much more beautiful,’” she quoted. “Jesus Himself is looking at you now. He who knows you and reads your innermost being. He looks into your heart. He knows your joys and sorrows, your successes, and defeats. And He says to you today, here in Lisbon, at this World Youth Day: ‘Do not be afraid! Do not be afraid! Be encouraged!’’

“Jesus is with us, always.” 

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