July 8, 2016

Focusing on Jesus: Teens, young adults hope World Youth Day pilgrimage deepens their life of faith

As leaders in the archdiocese’s Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry, Katie Sahm, left, and Krissy Vargo will lead more than 60 young adults on a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, on July 25-31. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As leaders in the archdiocese’s Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry, Katie Sahm, left, and Krissy Vargo will lead more than 60 young adults on a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, on July 25-31. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Katie Sahm recalls the moment as “a glimpse into heaven.”

It happened on the white sand of Copacabana beach three years ago.

As the waves rolled toward the shore of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Sahm joined the 3 million young people from around the world who had come there, all of them kneeling together in silence on the sand during a time of eucharistic adoration.

In that moment, all the major struggles, all the setbacks, all the rain that marked the earlier days of World Youth Day Rio faded away.

“That silence and hearing the waves was like a glimpse of heaven,” recalls Sahm, associate director of the archdiocese’s Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry. “It was like we were really in heaven in that moment. All the struggles made the focus about Jesus and coming together as a universal Church. It was just a beautiful outpouring of faith and trust.”

As another World Youth Day approaches—this time in Krakow, Poland, on July 25-31—youths and young adults from across the archdiocese are preparing for a pilgrimage that they hope will provide a similar experience of transformation and deepening faith.

(Related story: Unique fundraising, grants and Holy Spirit make World Youth Day dream a reality)

At 16, Emily Whitehead has been looking forward to World Youth Day for months—“because I want to experience God on a different level.”

“My hope for the pilgrimage is to grow in my faith, meet new people from all over the world, and to learn more about the history of Catholics,” says Emily, a member of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County. “I’m hoping it will help me appreciate my Catholic faith even more than I already do.”

Gail and Alex Ocana have made World Youth Day in Krakow such a priority that, before their wedding last September, they set up an account so that wedding guests could contribute to their pilgrimage fund as a wedding gift.

“We felt we were meant to take this pilgrimage to help us grow our faith as we begin our new life as a married couple,” says Gail, who is 28. “Our faith is very important to us as a couple, and is an integral part of our marriage. I think we’ve both been pretty lost at times in our lives when we didn’t take our faith seriously. Now, I don’t think I could get through my day-to-day life without it. This pilgrimage will be incredibly meaningful in strengthening us on our faith journey.”

Alex, who is 27, agrees: “My faith wasn’t always at the forefront of my life. It wasn’t until Gail and I really started dating that I became swept away by the Holy Spirit. Since then, I’ve felt called to grow in my faith and to be a conduit of grace to others.”

The couple—members of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis—are among the 64 young adults from the archdiocese who will be making an 11-day pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Poland. Twenty-eight college-age students are among the young adult group.

Their itinerary includes visits to Prague and Wadowice, the hometown of St. John Paul II, before heading to Krakow for World Youth Day activities that include prayer, the Stations of the Cross and a closing Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on July 31.

The archdiocese’s Youth Ministry Office will lead 104 youths to World Youth Day. Their 12-day itinerary includes four days in Rome—with a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and visits to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel—before traveling to Krakow.

“I hope that the pilgrims have the opportunity to experience the larger Church, and experience a reaffirmed hope in the upcoming generation of Catholics,” says Scott Williams, coordinator of youth ministry for the archdiocese.

“I continually hear that young people aren’t present in our churches. World Youth Day is an incredible reminder that the young Church is very much alive. And it reminds the young Church that they aren’t in this alone.”

Williams had his own memorable experience from what has been described as “the beautiful chaos” of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.

“Pilgrims from all over the world converged in the streets to celebrate together the opening Mass,” he recalls. “In high school and college, I took a lot of Spanish classes, and I thought that I would get by just fine. I learned the hard way that Portuguese (the main language in Brazil) and Spanish aren’t as similar as they sound.

“The beautiful thing I came to realize is that while I didn’t understand the language, most of the people around me didn’t either. However, everyone knew exactly what was going on. During the sign of peace, everyone started to exchange peace in their native tongue. This is one time that I saw the body of Christ come together in a tangible way.”

That’s the kind of experience 25-year-old Krissy Vargo is hoping for as she makes her first World Youth Day pilgrimage.

“I keep hearing about all the grace and the beauty that will come from it,” says Vargo, the event and volunteer coordinator for the archdiocese’s Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry. “I’m looking at the pilgrimage as being a transformation process. Personal growth in my own spiritual life is what I’m looking forward to happening.”

With the memory of a white, sandy beach and “a glimpse of heaven’ still fresh in her mind three years later, Sahm hopes the personal transformations from World Youth Day also contribute to a transformation for the archdiocese.

“The pilgrimage is meant to transform you, so you’re a different person at the end,” she says. “We get stuck in our own lives, our worlds and our parishes. It’s good to see what the ‘universal Church’ means.

“Our goal in our young adult office is to help make missionary disciples in all of our parishes. This trip should do that. My hope is that everyone comes back on fire for their faith.” †

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