Sixteen year old Dillon Daly kept using the word “exhilarating” as he described the experience he, nine other St. Bernardine youths and their five adult advisors had at the World Youth Day (WYD) in Rio de Janeiro with over one million young Catholics from around the world.
Fifteen year old Giana Moreno confessed to having no idea what she was getting into when she signed up. Layla Tovar, 16, recalled, “I thought it was going to be a really religious thing. I thought it was going to be strict Masses, an hour long and having to be quiet and paying attention.”
Daly said that now when he talks to his friends about World Youth Day—which was actually five days, July 23-28—he tells them, “It’s not like the church you think it would be. They taught us an essential idea but did it in a way that wasn’t boring but inspiring.”
What made perhaps the most lasting impression on the St. Bernardine youth were the Brazilian guides who were their own age and whom they got close to during the five day event. “They were all so nice to us,” said Monique Villanueva, 17. “We became really close to them and we’re Facebook friends now. We could just feel how friendly they were and how much they wanted to be with us and help us through this whole experience.”
Part of the exhilaration came from being part of a crowd of one million young people. “Energy” was a word the St. Bernardine young people used several times to express what it felt like to be with so many people their age who shared their faith and heritage.
Villanueva tried to express the difference between what she felt at WYD and her experience of religion here at home by saying, “I didn’t get strictly religious things out of it, but you saw God in everyone who was there. Everyone was so kind to you, and you just really felt Him around you.”
Kathy Capron Jankun, one of the group’s adult advisors, said, “Everybody was just so excited to be there and were proud of their heritage. You could see the Lord was everywhere. The most impressive thing was that so many young people believed in Jesus and the love these kids from all over the world had for each other.”
Part of the excitement in the group was generated by being able to see and hear Pope Francis. Daly used the word “exhilarating” again to describe how he felt the time he was able to get close to the leader of over one billion Catholics in the world.
“You just feel God’s presence when he walks or drives by,” Villanueva explained. “I can’t really describe it. It’s just something you feel. It’s kind of like an out of body thing. It’s kind of like a rush.”
All of the youth from St. Bernardine emphasized that in addition to the spiritual experiences they had during WYD, seeing life in a different part of the world and getting to know people their age from around the world changed their perspective on a lot of things.
For example, Capron Jankun said that their Brazilian guides showed them parts of Rio that tourists never see, including a lot of street people. Daly talked about how much fun it was to try different foods and “go to places I never thought I’d be in.” He smiled as he told a story about a bus shuttling them from the school where they were sleeping to an event at Copa Cabana Beach.
“The bus drivers didn’t really have the rules we have,” he said. “At some points they were going 50-60 mph in the city.”
“An ambulance was racing to some hospital alongside our bus,” Capron Jankun added, “and the bus won!” She talked about a little girl who hung around the school where they were sleeping to practice English with the Forest Parkers, and brought them each a little present on the day they left.
The St. Bernardine youth hinted that it was these young people who may have had an even greater spiritual impact on them than the mass events or even the pope. “They prioritize religion a lot in their life,” Tovar explained, “and here we’re not used to that. A lot of teenagers here kind of push it aside and go to Mass more out of duty. There it’s kind of like an essential part of their life.”
Villanueva added, “Everyone had such a close relationship with God. They didn’t need to do all the religious stuff like the genuflecting and kneeling because of how close they are with God. You could tell that they experience him through everything that they do and not just during the Mass.”
Perhaps the best indicator of what the experience meant to these St. Bernardine young people is that they all want to go to the next WYD three years from now in Poland.