College students recall youth day experience

wyd-lou3By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

When eight college students from the Archdiocese of Louisville embarked on a pilgrimage to see Pope Francis is Rio de Janeiro, they may not have anticipated quite how dramatic their experiences in Brazil would be.

“Before Mass we had adoration. Even though there were about three million people on the beach being loud, dancing, when adoration started every single one of them went quiet for 30 straight minutes. It still gives me goose bumps,” said Matt Sohl, a parishioner of St. Luke Church as he recalled the all night vigil and closing Mass with Pope Francis July 27 and 28.

The moment Zach Coots, a member of the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, will always remember is seeing Pope Francis for the first time.

“We got there probably three hours early and it was already crowded,” he said. “John (another member of the group) snakes his way up close to get to the gate. He asks if I can get anywhere higher. I saw a tree and got an idea. I climbed up in the tree and sat there for three and a half hours ‘til the pope showed up.

“When he rolled through it went so fast. I only took five pictures; he went by so fast,” Coots recalled. “I’ve never seen a pope before in my life, none of them. To see him in his white robes and in his popemobile, he just glowed.”

Sohl and Coots, both students at Western Kentucky University, were in Rio to take part in World Youth Day — a global gathering of Catholic teens and young adults. They were part a group of 16 from the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Campus Center at Western Kentucky University.

The group departed Kentucky on July 22 for São Paulo, Brazil, where they stayed with host families from São Domingo parish. They expected to take part in missionary work during their stay in São Paulo, and were initially disappointed because they were only able to work in a local soup kitchen for a few hours.

Pope Francis is seen as he passed by the Western Kentucky University group. (Photo Special to The Record)
Pope Francis is seen as he passed by the Western Kentucky University group. (Photo Special to The Record)

The group later realized, Sohl said, they were “missioned to” by the São Paulo people. “It was a very loving community, very welcoming,” he said.
Coots agreed with Sohl.

“We got to be involved in the community that week,” he explained in a recent telephone interview. “We spent a lot of time hanging out with them. They were speaking a little English and teaching us Portuguese along the way. The community was so happy we were there. When we left, the people were crying. Our mission work was just being there.”

From São Paulo, the group traveled by bus to Rio de Janeiro. Unsure of where to go once they arrived in the city and amazed by the sheer number of people in Rio, the college students became overwhelmed.

“The area around the bus stop was run down and really dirty. No matter how nervous we were the people there were great. The bus driver got off the bus and instructed us where to go,” Coots explained.

The Mass on Copacabana Beach was mainly in Portuguese but Imari Hazelwood, a parishioner of St. Augustine Church in Lebanon, Ky., didn’t have much trouble following along.

“One thing I realized is that no matter what language or ethnicity, everyone there loved God. You could tell during Mass and when talking to them. We all had that in common and that was an great feeling and reality to come to,” she said in an interview last week. “Even this past weekend when I was at Mass, I thought about everyone all over the world who was most likely participating in Mass also. That was a huge thing that I realized and took to heart from this experience.”

The trip has inspired Hazelwood to become more involved in church.

“The church in São Paulo that we attended had trouble with bringing in the youth from their community and I think that’s why they loved us being there because they saw the fire in us to want to learn more about God. I don’t want that fire to die down in my church so I want to be a part of continuing that fire,” she said.

Sohl’s brother John, who recently graduated from Western with a degree in photojournalism, also went on the pilgrimage. John Sohl took more than 3,000 photographs and numerous hours of video. He plans to compile a short film detailing the group’s experiences in Brazil. The brothers plan to show the film at several local parishes and share their World Youth Day experience.

“John and I started fund-raising for the trip late, only about three weeks before we left. Thanks to St. Luke, St. Rita and St. Athanasius (churches) we were able to raise $4,000 that made it possible for us to go on the trip. We want to share the trip with them,” Sohl said.

In addition to Matt and John Sohl, Hazelwood and Coots, four other college students from the archdiocese attended the World Youth Day gathering in Brazil. They are: Maggie Smith of St. Augustine Church in Lebanon, Ky.; Jacob Martin, St. Catherine Church, New Haven, Ky.; Sarah Rogers of St. Aloysius Church, Shepherdsville, Ky.; and Olivia Walker of St. Martin of Tours Church in Louisville.

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