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World Youth Day: A beach in Brazil becomes 'heaven on earth'

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2013: “A taste of heaven on earth” was how several Missouri young adults who prayed at the six-day World Youth Day in Rio with Pope Francis and 3 million other young people, according to official government count.

“We were completely crowded so cold and shivering but it felt right. We all belonged together, we all had a place,” said Toni Firoved, 19, of Sacred Heart Parish in Troy, Mo. She talked by phone late Sunday night from her Rio hotel.

The Mass participants filled the six-mile-long crescent Copacabana beach from its Atlantic’s water edge across the deep beach and six lanes and wide sidewalks of the adjacent grand Atlantic Boulevard. A temporary, raised sanctuary was set up at the beach’s northern edge with mountains as its majestic backdrop.

Elizabeth Doing, 19 of Ellisville, attended the previous WYD in Madrid, which drew about 1 million young persons. She said she realized the immense size of the WYD gathering when a helicopter's aerial shots were projected on the huge screen near where 19 lay Catholic Missourians spent Saturday night and Sunday. The two priest chaplains vested and con-celebrated the Mass.

“On the (helicopter view) video we looked like a huge blob,” she said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way but that we had a real sense of unity. It was not all about me, about individuals, but about all of us being here together as one body. All of us desiring changes in the world gives us reason to hope.”

Pope Francis called them to change their world, not necessarily with big steps but daily, in small ways and -- as he said again and again -- with the love of Jesus.

"Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent,” the pope told them.

He told them not to waste food and to think how their ordinary decisions affect the poor of the world. He warned them that the consumer society’s expectations that material things would make them happy were a delusion. He gave them an example by befriending a group of indigenous Amazon people. He encouraged the young people to think about those people whose land and hopes to feed their families are threatened by greed of commercial interests who want to demolish rain forests and juggles.

At the beginning of the vigil service, young people dressed in white carried lumber to the sanctuary and built a structure that drew puzzled expressions until it became obvious it was the skeleton of a church.

Francis talked about the building of this symbolic church by calling on the 3 million young people to build up their church as had the man whose name he chose after his election, St. Francis of Assisi.

He pointedly scolded Brazilian bishops and clergy, saying that one reason millions of Brazilians – still the most Catholic nation in the world – have left the church for Pentecostal and Christian evangelical movements is that the clergy had not left the comfort of their rectories and gone out among the people enough. They had not reached out to those on society’s margins following Jesus’ example.

Insights into Francis

On his first international trip since his election nearly five months ago, Francis showed himself as the product of 67 years of living on a continent where the poor get poorer and the very rich get richer. It is the continent where liberation theology calls on Christians to reach out to the poor as Jesus did. While rejecting the Marxist segments of liberation theology that alarmed John Paul, Francis puts his focus on the Gospel aspects of the teaching. He has lived simply among Argentina’s poor even as archbishop. He called himself still a "street bishop."

Francis also is a sports fan. As he moved around Rio, scores of WYD participants tossed him shirts and scarves marked with logos and colors of the pope's lifelong favorite soccer team, Buenos Aires' San Lorenzo.

Francis’ affinity for sports is like John Paul II who in 1999 excited Midwestern youth in what’s now the Savvis Center when he lifted a hockey stick into the air then swung it.  

Saturday night Francis challenged the young adults on the beach just miles from where the next World Cup will be played. He said that Jesus was asking them to “play on his team.”

“I think that most of you love sports! Here in Brazil, as in other countries, football is a national passion. Now, what do players do when they are asked to join a team? They have to train, and to train a lot! The same is true of our lives as the Lord’s disciples.

“Dear friends, never forget that you are Christ’s athletes!" Francis said. “You are called to build a more beautiful Church and a better world. Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup.

“He offers us the possibility of a fulfilled and fruitful life; he also offers us a future with him, an endless future, eternal life. But he asks us to train, to get in shape, so that we can face every situation in life undaunted, bearing witness to our faith.”

He told them that to get in shape they needed talk to Jesus, their guide “by prayer, which is our daily conversation with God.”

Mike Nightingale, 17, of Ballwin said hearing the pope relate to ordinary things like sports was inspiring.

“You see pictures of the pope but to really see him in person, see how humble he is, how calm he is, how really devoted he is to what he does is just an amazing thing in my book,” Nightingale said. To earn money for the trip, the teen worked two jobs and volunteered at a rummage sale his parish had. “I’d work four jobs to do this again,” Nightingale said.

There were several times at the Sunday Mass with the pope when that unity of the congregation dramatically hit home, Firoved said.

Few language barriers

Papal masses are celebrated in the language of the nation, in this case Portuguese. But the Missourians could hear simultaneous English translations over radios. As North Americans responded to the Mass prayers in English they could hear neighbors responding in Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese.

Silence brought sense of unity. Once in the vigil and twice in the Sunday Mass, the preaching, altar prayers and music stopped and silence was requested.

“The silence was deafening,” Elizabeth Doing, 19 of Ellisville said. “It was so powerful, millions of people all praying to Our Lord. “

During the silences the only sounds she could hear were the ocean waves rhythmically lapping the beach. For the vigil and through the night for the 9 a.m. Mass, the Missourians camped fairly close to the water’s edge about one and a half miles from the altar, she said.

“But we were near a video screen so could see it all” she said.

Celebrating the Mass in so many languages and with all these nations represented must be what heaven is like, Nick Koeppel, 21 of Cape Girardeau said.

They prayed for peace and to heal many of the world’s troubles. At the Sunday morning Mass, the 3 million prayed aloud for the 79 people killed and the many injured in the high-speed train derailment near the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Many train passengers were pilgrims en route to the feast day services for the feast of San Diego at that city’s vast cathedral.

Andrew Doing, 16, Elizabeth Doing’s brother, was amazed to meet several young Catholics from Kuwait. He was surprised there was much of an ancient Christian community there. The English-speaking Arabs shared with him the challenges they have practicing their faith in a country with only three churches.

Katie Mills, 20, of Sacred Heart in Troy, was delighted to chat with some young Catholics from South Vietnam.

“They spoke some English, but no matter what language -- even if we just used hand motions -- we could always say enough to understand their names, what country they were from and what they were thinking about World Youth Day,” Mills said.

After waiting more than two hours on Atlantic Boulevard to see the pope ride by in his pope mobile Mills bonded with several Rio residents. By the time Francis drove by “just five feet from us” they were warm friends.

Planting on good soil

Saturday night Francis referred to the Gospel story Jesus told about the farmer who tossed seed on a variety of soil and rocks and what thrives.

He knew he was mostly preaching to the choir.

“Today I am sure that the seed is falling on good soil, that you want to be good soil, not part-time Christians, not starchy and superficial, but real,” the pope said according to the Vatican English translation. “I am sure that you don’t want to be duped by a false freedom, always at the beck and call of momentary fashions and fads. I know that you are aiming high, at long-lasting decisions that will make your lives meaningful.”

Then, he said that Jesus is capable of helping them find meaning in their lives and referred to a phrase in John’s Gospel 14:5 “he is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ Let’s make him our guide!” The pope encouraged their "young hearts’" desire to build a better world.

“I have been closely following the news reports of the many young people who throughout the world and also here in Brazil who have taken to the streets in order to express their desire for a more just and fraternal society, " he said. "They are young people who what to be protagonists of change. I encourage them, in an orderly, peaceful and responsible way, motivated by the values of the Gospel, to continue overcoming apathy and offering a Christian response to the social and political concerns present in their countries.”

Mills is already are talking about earning money to attend the next WYD in three years in Krakow, Poland. That’s where the WYD founder Pope John Paul II moved as a college freshman and lived until being elected pope.

“I definitely want to go next time, it is so uplifting, so deepening of my faith life,” Mills said. “What ever I am doing then I hope I can go. I got tears and such happiness; it’s just rejuvenated me. “

At the core of what Francis asked of the young people is that they be women and men for others, a core mission statement of Francis’ Jesuit order. Do little things with much love Francis told them all week.

The Missourians did. Several saved their boxed lunches and handed them to Rio homeless in the downtown area. On the way back to their hotel Sunday afternoon, several gave the homeless on the streets blankets and sleeping bags that they had brought for the Saturday night overnight vigil.

“I just had one of those foil emergency blanket, why not give it to them, it’s not going to do me much good, only be in a closet,” Nightingale said.

A strong prayer routine is the change Firoved will start with, she said. “I think I am going to change because of this experience,” Firoved said. When she reached middle school and her parents no longer knelt beside her bed to pray with her each night, she got into the habit of jumping into bed and falling asleep before praying, she said.

In Rio, the Missouri group gathered in their hotel for evening prayers. She found the routine uplifting, helpful even joyful in her personal prayer.

“I am going to go back to saying evening prayers,” she said.

The pope arrived back in Rome Monday morning; and 21 young Missourians, most from St. Louis, will return to St. Louis Tuesday.

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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