February 22, 2019

‘So much love in the air’: Pilgrims embrace pope’s message of hope and see universality of Church during World Youth Day

Members of the archdiocesan group that traveled to World Youth Day in Panama pause for a photo amid the ruins of a Jesuit church in Panama City, a church that burned down in the mid-18th century and was never rebuilt. (Submitted photo)

Members of the archdiocesan group that traveled to World Youth Day in Panama pause for a photo amid the ruins of a Jesuit church in Panama City, a church that burned down in the mid-18th century and was never rebuilt. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Zach Peycha returned home inspired, enflamed by the message that Pope Francis had shared.

Emma Murphy came back with an overwhelming feeling of hope for the power of faith to connect people.

And Mark Zetzl continues to savor the memories of “an absolutely incredible experience” where he “could feel the presence of God.”

All three were among the 62 youths and young adults from the archdiocese who traveled to Panama City for World Youth Day on Jan. 27, joining more than 600,000 people from around the world.

Here are some of the defining moments and lasting influences that members of the archdiocesan group experienced during World Youth Day.

The joy of greeting Pope Francis

“One of the best moments during World Youth Day was being able to join the local Panamanians in welcoming Pope Francis as he journeyed in the popemobile through the city after arriving in Panama,” notes Mary Kate Shanahan, associate director of the archdiocese’s office of youth ministry.

“Throughout the day, you could see locals camping out in folding chairs and umbrellas along the barricades marking their spots, hoping that they would have the chance to see the pope pass by. Against all odds, a few of us caught an Uber from an event on the opposite side of Panama City that dropped us off near our hotel within 15 minutes of Pope Francis passing by there.

“We had just enough time to drop off our bags at the hotel and walk a block away to join the thousands waiting for Pope Francis. As everyone cheered and captured the moment on their cell phones, we were able to see him and were left with joy and a new sense of excitement for what was to come on World Youth Day.”

‘From all corners of the world’

“At the vigil with Pope Francis, I stood in the middle of the large field where we had gathered and looked around at all the flags that pilgrims were carrying,” recalls Father Eric Augenstein, director of vocations for the archdiocese and pastor of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis.

“I could see flags from all corners of the world, from Nigeria to Greece, Japan to Argentina, Slovakia to Kuwait. I was struck with a profound sense of the universality of the Church—not just that people from all these countries had gathered together in one place to pray and encounter Jesus and one another, but also that the Church is present in all of these places.

“For me, that tangible experience of the catholicity of the Church is the biggest takeaway from World Youth Day. We get so caught up in the struggles and joys of our local Church that it’s easy to forget that the Church spreads throughout the world. To pray with our Holy Father and Catholics from all corners of the world is one of the most tangible and complete experiences of Church that we can have.”

Mary Weckenbrock had a similar reaction on the night before Pope Francis celebrated Mass.

“When it got dark and [people] were singing after adoration finished, I was looking around and seeing the other people—and the joy and peace throughout it,” said Weckenbrock, 23, a member of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County. “They were waving their lights in the air with the music and enjoying being part of the universal Church.”

That feeling was shared by Joe and Carrie Esposito, a young married couple from St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis who wanted to experience World Youth Day together.

“Recent events have dampened the mood of the Church in the U.S., but the enthusiasm and energy we saw and felt in Panama ensured us that the future is still very bright,” says Joe, 27.

“My defining moment would be going to confession at the catechesis site [on Jan. 25],” recalls Carrie, who is 26. “The priests from a bunch of English-speaking countries all made themselves available, and the sight of everyone in the line—all willing and eager to participate—was really moving.”

‘There was so much love in the air’

Mark Zetzl of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis was touched by the message that Pope Francis shared with the young people during a Mass on Jan. 27.

“Pope Francis’ words were that of joy, peace, happiness, hope and, above all, love,” says Zetzl, 30. “He spoke with an invigorating energy that ignited a fire within [people’s] hearts.

“There was so much love in the air it was contagious. You could feel the presence of God as easily as the breeze from the ocean.”

One part of the pope’s message especially resonated with 18-year-old Zach Peycha, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Lebanon, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

“Pope Francis said, ‘The adults should be afraid of what you can do,’ ‘You aren’t the future, you are the now.’ These words really spoke to me because time after time, the youth are told what to do and a lot of the time, they’re limited by what their parents or guardians tell them. This shows me that just because we’re ‘youth’ doesn’t mean we’re a burden. We are the youth of the Church, and we are the people to start to make our universal Church stronger. It starts with one person.”

‘To dream of a future’

The pope’s message also had an impact on Scott Williams, the director of the archdiocese’s office of youth ministry—especially when the pope shifted the focus of his words to how older people need to support younger people.

“He said, ‘There is a question that we older people have to ask ourselves, but also a question that you need to ask us and we have to answer: What roots are we providing for you, what foundations for you to grow as persons? It is easy enough to criticize and complain about young people if we are depriving them of the jobs, education and community opportunities they need to take root and to dream of a future.’ ”

Listening to the pope’s message on an old FM radio through an English-speaking interpreter, Williams heard the pope conclude, “Because dreaming of a future means learning how to answer not only the question what I am living for, but also who I am living for, who makes it worthwhile for me to live my life.”

Williams notes, “The Holy Father made me think about how we can better support young people in these areas and challenged me to think outside of the box when it comes to providing opportunities and community—which is something that they need today, not in the future.”

‘Our faith is one in the Lord’

Where Williams found a challenge at World Youth Day, 18-year-old Emma Murphy discovered hope.

“Pope Francis has given me hope of what youth are capable of,” says Emma, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis. “The pilgrims have given me hope of achieving international companionship and respect for human dignity. And the experience as a whole has given me hope for the power of faith as a catalyst for unity.” 

Participating in World Youth Day reaffirmed Oscar Castellanos’ belief that the Church draws strength for its unity from its diversity.

“Our faith is one in the Lord, but the diversity of expressions of the same faith—manifested in the different races, cultures and ethnic backgrounds—enhances and embellishes the same faith,” says Castellanos, director of the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural Ministry.

“My experience and encounter with people from all over the world were very enriching. Listening to the pope speaking in my native tongue [Spanish] made a huge impression.”

For Madison Kinast, the lasting impression of World Youth Day was a message of finding love and harmony amid the differences that exist in the world.

“At the sign of peace in Mass, you could shake hands with people from five different continents. Amazing!” says Kinast, associate director of the archdiocese’s office of young adult and college campus ministry.

She notes how Pope Francis pointed out the differences among the crowd of 600,000—the different flags, languages, ethnicities and clothing. Yet, the pope said, true love doesn’t let differences separate people. Instead, it seeks harmony from the differences.

“This was very timely and fitting for World Youth Day, but it also applies back home,” Kinast says.

“It’s inevitable to have friends, family members or co-workers with differences in preference or opinion. But rather than allowing that to divide, how can we learn from each other, expand our worldview, and allow true love and differences to enrich our lives?” †

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