August 5, 2013 by Alex Johannigman
This year I finally had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to World Youth Day, a celebration of the Catholic faith for 16-35 year olds put on every 2-3 years at different locations around the world. As many of you are aware, this year WYD drew a crowd of over 3 million young people to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to learn about their faith, worship God, see the Pope and hear his inspiring words, and meet other young people from around the world who share their Catholic faith.
With complete honesty I can say that the past two weeks were totally life changing for me as I was able to meet and talk to Catholic youth from South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and other parts of North America. I got to see Pope Francis. And I got to grow close to a group of 32 other amazing pilgrims who traveled with me through different parts of Peru and Brazil.
However, my pilgrimage experience wasn’t at all what I was expecting or hoping for, but it was an experience that I desperately needed.
For many years I’ve heard great things about World Youth Day. It’s a gathering of many well known Catholic figures from around the world, so I was expecting to get a chance to meet or at least hear from a lot of well-known bishops and cardinals like Timothy Dolan and Sean O’Malley, as well as the Pope himself. I thought it would be packed full of people smiling, dancing, having a good time, celebrating the faith, and having one of the best weeks of their lives.
What I hadn’t truly been anticipating was how big of a difference there is between a vacation and a pilgrimage, and how much the hardships and trials along the way would test my patience, fortitude, and trust.
Traveling in a big group over a long period of time really wore on me. With so many people, it was often difficult to attend to the needs of everyone. We had to stop frequently, wait on people who were running late, and be willing to forgive everyone in our group anytime they made a decision that impacted the rest of us in a negative way. But in addition to problems caused by other pilgrims, intentionally or unintentionally, we also were the victims of circumstance and conditions outside of our control. Plans were constantly being changed when things didn’t work out as expected. Crowds were larger than anyone thought they would be. And the constant rain and coldness for most of the week dampened our spirits.
The climax of this frustration occurred on the night of the vigil with Pope Francis. We arrived at the beach around 4pm to find that most of the beach was already occupied by other pilgrims. After looking around for what seemed like an hour, we finally found a spot that would fit our large group. Even though it was well beyond the last screen and speakers, we were content and happy with our spot on the sandy beach until the Pope came by. After he drove to the stage in the Popemobile, the fences lining the road he had driven down were removed and hundreds of thousands of people who had been stuck on the other side of the road from the beach came on to the beach looking for a place to sit.
“Go back to the street,” I thought to myself. “Can’t you all see that there’s no more room here? The beach has been full for hours. You should have known to get here earlier.” My frustration worsened as people began trampling over my sleeping bag and getting sand all over my things without any sort of apology or acknowledgement of their grave sin (in my mind) against me and my comfort. Over the next hour people began to set their things up on the edges of our area because they could find no other space, and not too long after that people just started setting up their things right in the middle of the pathways that had been created, forcing people to walk through our area even more than they had instead of around it. I was getting furious.
Then my friend Jeffrey offered to move some of our group’s things out of the way to make even more room for a group of Brazilians who couldn’t find a place to rest their heads. Once again I thought “There’s no room here, this area is already full.” Then it hit me, and I thought to myself: Who else had already uttered those words at beginning of the New Testament? Did I really want to be the one who was saying it to others right now on the beach among others who were here for the same reason that I was? Was I not in an identical position when I had first arrived, searching for a place to stay on the beach for what seemed like an hour? When did I abandon Christian hospitality for the sake of my own comfort?
From that moment I realized that Christ didn’t bring me to World Youth Day to hear great speakers, meet Catholic celebrities, or get some great emotional “high” like what I’ve experienced at the end of many retreats. He brought me to Rio to remind me what it is to be a servant. He brought me there because I needed a reminder of the core Christian calling: to love others. It isn’t an easy calling. It requires more patience than I have right now. It requires me to deny myself and the things that make me comfortable. It requires me to make sacrifices for the sake of others. It requires me to be completely joyful in the most frustrating of situations. In this case, it meant I needed to stop thinking about my own wants, and start thinking of the wants of the millions of people on the beach who needed a place to sit down so they could worship God just like I wanted to.
In the words of Jesus, it was about time for me to “deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Him.” (Matthew 16:24)
This is why I’m thankful for the chance to go to World Youth Day this year. Not because I got to meet cool people, or because I got to hear great music, or because I got to participate in massive liturgies. It is because, through this experience, I was reminded of what it means to love others. I was reminded of how to love the other pilgrims in my group, and the pilgrims on the beach and on the bus and on the subway who often didn’t even speak a common language with me.
World Youth Day wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but it was absolutely what I needed it to be.