Young Catholics converged recently on Germany for World Youth Day, hosted by their new pope — and some, like Andrea Prisby of Tempe, came home saying she had never felt more Catholic.
"It felt like it was a Catholic Woodstock," the 24-year-old said after she returned from Cologne, where Pope Benedict XVI had come to celebrate the Eucharist in an open field for an estimated 1.1 million people and to preach to them from the bow of a cruise ship on the Rhine River. It was the new pontiff’s first international trip since he succeeded Pope John Paul II in April.
In his native Germany, the 78-year-old pope had come to carry on the World Youth Day tradition begun by John Paul in 1984.
About 180 teens and young adults from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix took part in World Youth Day, typically held in a different city every two or three years. It spanned four days, Aug. 18-21, but many participants extended it to pilgrimages to holy shrines in Europe and other Catholic events.
About 20 making the trip are connected to Youth Arise North America, a school of evangelization in Tempe. A few days after most arrived home, they gathered at the City of the Lord Covenant Community near downtown Tempe to share their experiences and celebrate the trip’s spiritual impact through singing, prayer and fellowship.
Prisby, who ended up spending three weeks in Europe, traveled to the sacred sites of Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France, where, it is said, the Virgin Mary appeared to believers. She also went to Essen, Germany, to attend the Youth Arise International Festival before Youth Day.
"It wasn’t just a physical pilgrimage — it was definitely a pilgrimage into my own heart," Prisby said of her trip. Her decision to go was spurred by Youth Arise. "Coming into this community and seeing all these Catholics, it was like, ‘How can I not go and see what this is all about?’ "
Standing amid more than a million Catholics, who were in their 30s or younger, she said, "I saw how big our church was and how vast God was — we are really universal. . . . You just have to experience being there with all these Catholics."
Ross Paschal, 19, of Tempe said he was swept up in a crush of people after the Mass as the participants headed to trains. "People were crying and freaking out and pushing up against you," he said. "In four hours, it seemed we moved only 10 yards, so the Lord really taught me patience. He will provide. I surrendered myself to him."
Paschal said he was inspired by a talk by actor Jim Caviezel, who portrayed Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ." "He said that we are not made to fit into this world, but to stand out," Paschal said. "I thought, ‘Wow, that is so true.’ . . . He made us to stand out and be who we are called to be as Catholics." After Caviezel talked, the crowd watched the film on giant screens.
Rebecca Castellanos went to Europe for Youth Day with her family. They split up, and she stayed with an older woman in a home far from Cologne. Day after day, she said, she and her companions boarded the wrong trains trying to get to and from the Youth Day site. She was blessed by all the people she met while traveling on the wrong trains. "We shared our lives with them, and they shared their lives with us," Castellanos said.
Meagan Rippee, 20, who moved from Missouri for Youth Arise training, talked about a "day of continual blessings" as she wandered with friends around Cologne, visiting numerous churches. In one church, she went into a crypt under the altar. "I have never felt more peaceful in my life," she said. "I have never felt closer to God than I did sitting there in adoration."
During the months of preparation for Youth Day, there had been concerns whether Pope John Paul II’s failing health would keep him from going to Cologne, said Bill Marcotte, Phoenix director of youth and the young adult department. The pope died April 2. But the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger brought new energy to the event.
"People who know about World Youth Day know this is an entrenched thing now and that Germany had been planning for this for three years," he said. "They wouldn’t have canceled it."
This year’s theme was "We Have Come to Worship Him," which was based on the visit by the magi to the birthplace of Christ. Mary Flynn, 19, of Tempe said that the Cologne event was cold with rain. "This trip was not comfortable," she said. But the magi theme was not lost on her. "Every time I was going to the Eucharist, I felt I was greeting my father. That was really powerful as a young Catholic."
"I was really surprised that more young people chose to go to Germany than Toronto," Flynn said, holding back tears. "I was really surprised and honored to be a Catholic. So many young people came to embrace and to love our Holy Father into our church and into our lives. . . . It shows that our young people in the church supported the church’s position and loved him."