August 25, 2023

‘It was nothing like I could have ever imagined’

Archbishop Thompson and other World Youth Day pilgrims share moments that touched their lives

Story by John Shaughnessy   |   Photos submitted by local pilgrims

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson quickly focuses on his most memorable moments from World Youth Day in Portugal, a celebration of the Catholic faith with Pope Francis that drew about 1.5 million young people from around the globe.

The archbishop especially recalls his two-day visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima—one day with the 60 U.S. bishops who joined in the celebration of faith on Aug. 1-6, the next day with the other 187 pilgrims from the archdiocese who made the journey to Portugal.

“The pilgrimage to Fatima was a particularly grace-filled moment,” Archbishop Thompson recalls. “Witnessing the faith, devotion and enthusiasm of people was a deeply profound grace. It was quite evident that the devotion and enthusiasm for the faith exuded by young people had an inspiring impact on Pope Francis and the bishops. 

(Related: From Archbishop Thompson: WYD experience provides a great infusion of renewed hope)

“Despite the heat, humidity and various obstacles along the way, the young people continued to evidence great joy, energy, curiosity and passion for their Catholic faith.”

The archbishop notes that the theme of this year’s World Youth Day had a clear connection to the Blessed Mother—both with the emphasis on Our Lady of Fatima and the “Rise up and go in haste” sessions related to Mary’s actions after the annunciation that are captured in Luke 1:39. At the same time, the archbishop says, “the celebrations of Mass and eucharistic adoration provided a very Christ-centered focus.”

The closing Mass of World Youth Day celebrated by Pope Francis in Lisbon provided another memorable moment for the archbishop.

“Pope Francis consistently and emphatically proclaimed the unconditional love of God for each of us, as well as faith in each of us to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” the archbishop says. “He stressed the power of that love to heal wounds, warm hearts and overcome our fears. He made it very clear that all are welcome and have a place within the Church, the family of God.”

That welcoming, embracing message echoed throughout all the events of the World Youth Day celebration, according to the archbishop.

“In the spirit of synodality, it was important to listen to the hopes, dreams, concerns and insights of those participating in World Youth Day. Many young people, including several of those from the archdiocese, participated in respectful, fruitful and genuine dialogue.”

The archbishop has a hope of his own after those conversations and experiences of World Youth Day.

“It is certainly my hope that those participating in World Youth Day, whether in person or virtual, will carry with them that message of being beloved children of God with a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose as missionary disciples—to embrace their role in the Gospel mission of Jesus Christ to transform the world in bringing about peace, hope, healing and reconciliation.”

‘It was nothing like I could have ever imagined’

At 18, Caroline Bell viewed participating in World Youth Day as a special way to thank God for being with her through her cancer diagnosis and recovery earlier this year.

“Through cancer, I was really able to have my relationship with God really flourish and grow strong because of the trials I had gone through,” says Bell, whose thyroid cancer is now in remission.

While she had the opportunity to share her gratitude with God in Portugal, her experiences were still beyond her expectations.

“Even though I tried to prepare myself, it was nothing like I could have ever imagined. Being surrounded by so many people who shared the same faith, who have the same love for Christ, was just so amazing, so beautiful.”

A member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, Bell became overwhelmed with emotion when she entered a setting where nearly 200 huts were set up for people to take part in the sacrament of reconciliation, with long lines stretching outside the tents—“everyone waiting to receive the grace of God and forgiveness for our sins.”

The 2023 graduate of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis also became emotional when she joined the 26,000 pilgrims from the United States “on their hands and knees, just worshipping and praising God” during eucharistic adoration in a field.

She even had a feeling of joy as she walked 5 miles in near-100-degree heat to sleep overnight in a field—in preparation for being there the following morning when Pope Francis celebrated Mass for 1.5 million people.

“Just gratefulness to God for being able to be there,” she says about the entire experience. “And I really felt that even more with Mary being one of the main themes for this—‘to go in haste.’ She went with haste to see Elizabeth after she said yes to God. I could feel God’s presence. There was just an overwhelming joy and peace that I had never experienced before.”

Her goal is to continue to grow in her faith, to draw closer to God as she begins her studies at St. Louis University, hoping to pursue a career researching cures for brain diseases.

“One thing that Pope Francis said was that this is an amazing time to be here together, but what really matters is what you choose to do after this when you leave. Thinking about that, I thought about how I could grow my faith. So, I’m trying to go to daily Mass and say the rosary every day and really grow in my prayer life.”

‘The joy of being gathered together in Christ’

One of the distinctive features of World Youth Day is to meet people from different countries and cultures, at the same time knowing there’s the bond that’s already shared as followers of Christ and members of the Church.

That reality came to life in a memorable way for Father James Brockmeier, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Worship and the rector of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.

“The thing that impacted me the most about World Youth Day was encountering so many young people, both in our own archdiocesan group and from countries all over the world, who shared their love for Jesus with joy,” says the 33-year-old Father Brockmeier. “At Fatima, along with a few of our pilgrims, I met a young man from the Netherlands named Marcel. When he found out we were from the United States he got a big smile on his face.

“He was there with his twin brother and some other friends who were students in Amsterdam. Marcel shared with me and our pilgrims how much he wanted his identical twin brother to be a priest. With his brother right next to him, he said, ‘I know him better than he knows himself, and he would be such a wonderful priest.’ He asked me to tell his brother how I decided to become a priest, so I got to share my vocation story.

“I told Marcel’s brother I would come to his ordination in Amsterdam if he discerns the priesthood. I was so moved at how much these young men loved our Lord and how much they wanted to share that joy with us.”

Two other moments stood out to Father Brockmeier.

“Another memorable highlight was the experience of hundreds of thousands of people being silent at the same time during eucharistic adoration. Only Jesus could quiet the hearts of that huge crowd.

“Over and over again, I saw people having reunions with friends they hadn’t seen in a while but ran into at World Youth Day. It was a little vision of the joy of meeting with our loved ones again in heaven. It was amazing how many ways the joy of being gathered together in Christ was present in everything.”

A reminder from God

Going to Portugal for World Youth Day, Rachel Gilman had one overriding personal hope: “I went searching for a big, life-changing, ground-breaking moment in my relationship with God.”

That hope was never realized. Instead, Gilman says, “I walked away with something much sweeter—a reminder that God is constantly reaching out to me, interrupting my life and calling me closer to him. I only have to pay attention and listen.”

That lesson was reinforced for 31-year-old Gilman in her experiences of the opening Mass of World Youth Day and during the journey to the closing Mass with Pope Francis.

“The opening Mass was the very first large event that everyone at World Youth Day was invited to attend, and I had no idea what it was going to be like or how many people would be there,” says Gilman, the director of youth ministry for the archdiocese.

“We arrived two hours early just to try to get a spot within the park and had to wait for 30 minutes just to get through security. While we were waiting to get our bags checked to get into the park, groups were waving their country’s flags, singing popular songs from their cultures, and there was an excitement in the air that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.

Once we were settled in the park, sitting on our makeshift tarps and on patches of grass and dirt, I was overcome with awe as people continued to pour into the park.

“By the time Mass began, there were over 150,000 people packed into the park, with everyone speaking the Mass parts in their native languages. I became overwhelmed with a sense of profound awe at the largeness of our Catholic community like I had never seen before—and gratitude for the aliveness and excitement of the young people of our Church. It was then that I realized, this is what World Youth Day is all about.”

Her joy and excitement were challenged later in the week when her group headed to the park in Lisbon where 1.5 million people would camp out for the night in anticipation of the closing Mass to be celebrated by Pope Francis the next morning.

“Our journey to the site really stands out to me as representing this pilgrimage experience,” Gilman says. “To get to the park, our group had to travel for several hours and included a metro ride, 3-plus miles of walking with very heavy backpacks with food and supplies for a night under the stars, and a 1.5-hour wait on a closed-down highway while we waited for security to open the gates. Oh, and did I mention that we did all of this in 96-degree weather and in a heat advisory?

“This journey was hard. I was exhausted, hot, probably already a little bit smelly, and yet I felt this intense and innate sense of purpose while we were making this journey—like all of this pain, sacrifice and hardship were because we were journeying to something greater, a shared experience in our faith that we would never get at any other times in our lives.

“Although the journey itself taught me a lot, it was really the 1.5-hour wait on the highway that stands out most to me. I remember initially feeling so frustrated because we had to wait in the blazing heat on a hot highway for who knows how long until the gates would be opened? And yet, in the midst of this frustration, I had an intense moment of clarity where I realized, ‘Holy cow! Lisbon literally closed down a six-lane major highway for us, so that we could walk to our vigil site location.’ ”

While sitting on that hot highway, Gilman thought about how the six lanes were likely usually filled with cars. That’s when it sank in for her that “Lisbon had to disrupt their entire infrastructure to accommodate our pilgrimage to the vigil site.”

When that revelation struck her, two other ones followed.

“We as a pilgrim people of World Youth Day were creating a major moment of evangelization for the city of Lisbon and the country of Portugal. The people of this country literally couldn’t escape our witness and devotion to our faith as we stopped traffic, closed down major roads, and overwhelmed metro stations just to travel to a field to pray together as a young Catholic community. There was no way that we would go unnoticed.”

Her second revelation from that moment is her biggest takeaway from World Youth Day, one that she believes all Catholics should embrace.

“God calls us to be interrupters in other people’s lives so that we can show them his love, his truth and

his goodness,” she says. “Just like our presence on the closed-down highway interrupted people’s daily lives in Lisbon, so too are we called to interrupt and speak God’s love into the lives of others who don’t know God, who have fallen away from the Church, or who don’t see faith as something to be actively practiced.

“God is a God who interrupts our lives. Just like in those moments I described, God interrupted those moments to call me closer to him and to be his love in the world—even when I didn’t want to at all.”

‘Jesus is seeking us’

When Luke Hornbach signed up to attend World Youth Day, the 20-year-old member of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County did so because he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to meet people from all over the world who share the Catholic faith.

Yet the true impact of his pilgrimage to Portugal turned out to be in the way he grew even closer to people who were already a part of his life.

He made the pilgrimage with his older brother Alex, his younger brother Matthew, and his oldest sister Sarah, plus some of their female cousins. He also drew closer to friends who were part of the 72 people from All Saints who joined in the archdiocesan pilgrimage.

And the experience had the result of making him even closer to his parents at home, because his time in Portugal made him see the struggles that many people face in that country and how blessed he is.

Then there is the impact the pilgrimage had on his relationship with Jesus.

“A big thing for me when we were there was eucharistic adoration,” he says. “We’d go, go, go all day. Being able to sit there and reflect on the day at adoration was really powerful. To take a break and just talk to Jesus and offer up what was on our hearts and whatever was hurting on my body. Being able to offer that up for my family at home and people who I know are struggling with things.”

Throughout the challenges of the pilgrimage—the heat, the exhaustion—Hornbach tapped into a constant message shared by Father Jonathan Meyer, who serves the four parishes in Dearborn County. Father Meyer told the group that Jesus was with them, constantly seeking them. Hornbach experienced that feeling at different points of the journey.

“This really showed me that Jesus is seeking us. He wants us to come seek him as well. To see him chasing after us was really powerful, just to know that he really is with us at all times.”

A view of the meaning of friendship

The scene is engraved in Felix Navarrete’s mind, a moment that reminds him of one of the most powerful stories of friendship and faith.

“While we all climbed a small hill looking for a better view of Pope Francis during the day of his welcome, I saw a group of young people who were accompanying a disabled young man,” recalls Navarrete, the coordinator of Hispanic ministry for the archdiocese.

“For obvious reasons, this young man could not get up the hill on his own in his wheelchair due to the inclination of the hill, but it was not an impediment for him to achieve it because he was accompanied by his friends. One of them took this young man, put him on his back and began to walk up the hill while two other young women carried his wheelchair.

“I immediately remembered the paralytic whose friends took him to Jesus with the faith that he would be healed of that disease. The scene on the hill is very similar. These young people wanted their friend to have the same opportunity as them, to reach a high point to see the successor of Peter. I do not know the outcome of this story, but I sense that Jesus already was doing great things in them.”

The 35-year-old Navarrete says that scene and so many others nourished his faith and his desire to bring more young people, especially in the Latino communities of the archdiocese, closer to God and the Church.

“I am hopeful that our Church will be renewed once more by the Holy Spirit, giving rise to a generation of fervent, holy young people, in love with the liturgy and the beauty of our Catholic tradition.”

‘We are working together to reach our heavenly home’

Emotion overwhelmed Lucas Cummings on the day he traveled to Fatima with about 60 other students from Marian University in Indianapolis who made the pilgrimage.

“I’ve had a fascination with the apparition of Mary there and the stories of the three children,” he says. “The outdoor Mass was beautiful. A statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which would be traveling to Lisbon in the coming days, started its journey at our Mass. I was brought to tears by seeing the amount of people from countless walks of life. We chanted the ‘Salve Regina’ after Mass and the bells of the old basilica were ringing. I’ll never forget it.”

He also won’t forget what he did during a rally in Lisbon for the 26,000 Americans who attended World Youth Day.

“A bishop stepped up and talked about vocational discernment,” recalls Cummings, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Kokomo, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. “He asked everyone who was considering religious vocations to raise their hand.

“I personally have always had an open heart toward potentially becoming a priest, so I raised my hand. I saw some other hands go up as well. The bishop congratulated us for our courage and open hearts, and the crowd began to applaud us. I started to tear up again. It was a rush of relief and hope that gave me chills. I felt close to Christ at that moment.”

The experience of World Youth Day also left him feeling connected to fellow young Catholics from around the globe.

“I met pilgrims from Canada and Australia, rode the metro with pilgrims from Germany and France, and befriended a pilgrim from a small group out of Singapore. Even in the crowded, hectic spaces we shared with the other pilgrims and locals or through the blazing temperatures, it was a beautiful slice of cultural discovery and celebration of God’s creation.

“This experience overall reminded me that we are all pilgrims, that this earthly life isn’t permanent. We are working together to reach our heavenly home. Things aren’t perfect and there are challenges throughout life, so we must trust in Jesus Christ to guide us in the moments we have little influence over.

If we begin to spend more time with Jesus, we can find him more within the hearts of others and pay compassion forward to others in our lives.” †

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