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St. Louisans heading for World Youth Day expect new pope to add an extra spark

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 22, 2013: Yesterday, as with most Sundays, Kathy Miller, 25, ushered at 11 a.m. Mass at her parish, Seven Holy Founders Church in Affton.

Next Sunday she’ll participate in a Mass with identical core prayers but everything else will be different. Instead finding a familiar pew, she’ll be kneeling on her sleeping bag outdoors at a Brazilian Air Force base as Pope Francis celebrates Sunday Mass. Instead of praying with neighbors and childhood friends, she’ll be surrounded by young people from more than 100 countries. She expects the pope to focus his homily on how her generation can help the world.

Miller, a pharmacist assistant at a Schnucks supermarket, is one of 21 young Missourians, most from the St. Louis area, who arrived Monday in Rio de Janeiro. Before landing their jet arced around Rio’s Corcovado Mountain topped with the 130-yard-high statue of Christ the Redeemer with his arms outstretched.

Tuesday evening, they will attend the opening Mass of the 28th biennial World Youth Day. The “day” is a six-day, biennial teach-athon and religious celebration bringing from 1 million to 2.5 million youth and chaplains together.

For three mornings beginning Wednesday all are assigned classes taught by bishops. The bishops will teach about their faith before encouraging the younger people to go home and evangelize their generation.

WYD is open to Christians between the ages of 16 and 35. About 9.500 U.S. pilgrims are pre-registered according to the United States Conference of Catholic bishops.

Pope Francis arrived in Rio Monday. It’s his first trip outside of Italy since March 13 when Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, was elected pope. Nearly half the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America.

Most of the Missourians in Rio signed up for the trip more than a year ago expecting that Pope Benedict XVI would be their main WYD teacher. The new pope, they said, will add to the spirit of excitement.

“Francis is so humble and the church needs that,” Miller said Sunday afternoon at Lambert Airport before going through security. “He dresses more simply, lives more simply. He goes out into the crowds and really talks to people face-to-face. He’s accessible.”

Like many on the trip, she’s long hoped to participate in a WYD. One of the first memories Miller can precisely date happened in 1993 when she saw Pope John Paul II outside the gates to WYD in Denver.

“I was only 3, it was exciting,” she said. She said she has never forgotten what moment and is delighted she can use 10 days of vacation to go to Rio.

Growing in faith

A dozen Missouri young people gave variations of “growing” in their faith as their reason for going.

“I think that World Youth Day will help me see how other cultures celebrate our faith, get me out of my bubble in St. Louis” Alison Puetz, 16, of Ellisville, a Lafayette High School junior, and parishioner at St. Clare of Assisi in Ellisville.

”Pope Francis is more enthusiastic, (stresses) different values. It’s exciting,” she said.

Many said they were open to change in their spiritual journey. That happened to Marge Meines, 28, of Brentwood, when she attended the 2002 WYD in Toronto. The soul searching she did there helped lead her to work within her church. She now is director of youth ministry at St. Clement of Rome Parish in Des Peres and a chaperone on this trip. Her fond memories of hearing Pope John Paul II in Canada are bittersweet because he clearly was ill and suffering.

“There will be a different energy with the new pope. Francis is very on fire,” Meines said. Her face broke into a wide smile when she said that she’s looking forward to an element of surprise in how Francis leads the event.

Even as he left Rome Francis signaled his new style that Meines, Puetz and Miller admire. He boarded his plane toting his own hand luggage, a well worn leather briefcase. Over the weekend the Rio archbishop tweeted that after the pope’s13-hour flight today Francis will circulate through downtown Rio to be "near the people."

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit, said Francis has “adapted intensified and enriched (the visit) with further events.” Francis who has focused many of his papal homilies on the poor added visits to Rio’s clusters of makeshift shanties called favelas, and a couple of hospitals that serve AIDS patients and the poor. The pope scratched the Vatican’s planned day of rest for him and will travel about 100 miles outside of Rio to the Brazilian national shrine, The Basilica of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida - Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.

Prayer on Copacabana

The Missourians are staying in a simple, hostel-like hotel at least three and four persons to a room within walking distance from Copacabana Beach, according to Brian Miller, St. Louis Archdiocese director of young adult ministry, the group coordinator and a chaperone.

Instead of playing they’ll pray on the gorgeous beach -- at Tuesday night’s opening Mass, a Wednesday talk by Pope Francis and Friday’s Way of the Cross. St. Louisans didn’t pack swim suits but Bibles, hiking boots, sleeping bags and thin rain ponchos. Many handed their cell phones and tablets to their parents before departure Sunday. With more than a million members of this social media generation, hot spots may be hard to use.

While the Saturday night prayer vigil service with its lively, international sacred music and the Sunday Papal Mass are clearly the highlights for most, Elizabeth Doing, of Chesterfield, who attended the WYD in Madrid two summers ago, has equal affection for the Friday night Way of the Cross. Teams of young people will take turns carrying a heavy wooden cross as the million or so participants walk with them. They will recite quotations from Gospel descriptions of Jesus' final hours as he carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha and his final three hours hanging on the cross.

The devotion reminds Doing that “Christ did not spare us from suffering and we can unite our suffering with his,” she said. “That something we celebrate in every Eucharist.”

With her encouragement, her brother Andrew, 16, a junior at Marquette High School arrived in Rio this morning.

Reflection on vocations

The event’s vocations fair is of special interest to Chris Echele, 22, of St. Charles a member of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish. “I want to find answers to the vocation thing,” he said. He will be prayerfully mulling over whether he might study for the priesthood, become a member of a religious order or marry and have a family.

Chris Venverloh, 23, a member of St. George Parish in Gardenville in South St. Louis County, is completing the application process to study for the priesthood at Kenrick Seminary in Shrewsbury and also expects to find the vocations fair helpful. In December, he graduated with a zoology major from Northwest Missouri State College in Maryville.

No one event drew Venverloh but the spirit of it, he said. “The real excitement is being with 2 million other young people who care as much, or probably more, than I do about the faith, after being in college with a lot of people who are not interested,” he said.

The Missourians’ only tourist event will be tomorrow before the official evening opening. They’ll leave their hotel at 6:40 a.m. to visit the statue on the mountain top.

Raising funds

The Vatican said that WYD will cost $150 million. Brazil is picking up about one-third of that. If the number grows to close to 2 million -- every charter bus in Argentina is said to be booked to take fans-of-Francis to Rio -- the event likely will bring more people to the city than either the upcoming World Cup or the Olympics. The Brazilian military is assisting in security. Many Rio residents are opening their homes to young people and their sleeping bags.

Each Missouri participant paid $3,6000 for flight and accommodations and most meals. That’s higher than previous youth days, even the trip to Sydney, Australia. U.S. participation is down from WYD in Madrid two years ago.

Many Missouri participants worked at summer, holiday and after school jobs to earn the money.

Venverloh is overwhelmed that his St. George parishioners in Gardenville contributed more than $2,000 to his trip after he spoke one weekend at all parish Masses. Several other participants wrote letters to family and friends asking for sponsorship. St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville has a long tradition of supporting high school students – four this time – with a rummage sale, baked sales and car washes.

The United Nations declared 1985 the first “International Youth Year” which became the catalyst for WYD. To mark the UN year, Pope John Paul II welcomed youth from all over the world in Rome on Palm Sunday that year. Response was so overwhelming that in December of the same year he announced the institution of World Youth Day. It has been celebrated as a week-long event internationally every two to three years around the world From the start lectures by bishops with a reputation for good preaching have been a key to the event.

“Before you can evangelize you have to learn,” the Rev. Jim Theby, an associate pastor at St. Clare of Assisi in Ellisville, told the group before departure. The priest who has attended all but one of the WYD since 2000 is one of two St. Louis chaplains on the trip. The other, the Rev. Joseph A. Webber, pastor of St. Justin the Martyr Parish in Sappington told them, “This week you will sit at the feet of the pope and the bishops.”

Webber said he is fascinated by Francis and is excited to be going. “It’s going to be very interesting to hear what Francis is going to say to young people, Francis’ unpredictability and spontaneity will certainly add to the spirit of the week.”

After a send-off blessing, Webber encouraged them not to be discouraged if travel got exhausting or confusing.

“Pilgrimage is not easy.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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