Local pilgrims recount World Youth Day

Local pilgrims, from left, Leo Luna, Caryn Crush, Bryan Cain, John Sohl and Mary Whitfill from the Archdiocese of Louisville enjoyed ice cream on a hot day in Panama. The group attended World Youth Day in Panama from Jan. 22 to 27. (Photos special to The Record)

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

An openness to answer the Lord’s call and a renewal of faith struck the hearts and minds of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s delegation to World Youth Day in Panama last month.

The Jan. 22 to 27 international gathering brought together young people from ages 16 to 35 to celebrate their faith with Pope Francis. Among the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who attended were nine young adults from the archdiocese, including three youth ministers. They ranged in age from 21 to 31 and hailed from several parishes in the archdiocese, including: St. Luke, St. Rita, St. Margaret Mary, Guardian Angels, Holy Trinity and St. Louis Bertrand.

Six of the local participants began the pilgrimage at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, just days prior to the start of the gathering in Panama. They brought the message of the March for Life, which advocates for an end to abortion through peaceful demonstration, with them to Panama, said Karl Dolson, director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, who attended both events.

“The message that there is value and human dignity of every person from conception to natural death was carried throughout,” said Dolson during an interview after the trip. “I think the experience very clearly moved from an effort to sway public opinion about life issues at the March for Life to a demonstration of living the value of human dignity at World Youth Day,” he said.

Caryn Crush held Bosco, a bear she took on her travels in honor of her students at Sacred Heart Preschool.

The pilgrimage was marked by moments of “joy, excitement and peace,” said Anna Metzger, a Spanish teacher at Mercy Academy, who also attended.

“Before World Youth Day, I had experienced my faith in the states and I learned the Spanish language in Central America, but I had never lived them out together before. World Youth Day in Panama allowed me to put my faith in action in a culture that fills my heart,” said Metzger, 24.

She recalled the Holy Hour with Pope Francis and described it as “beautiful and divine.”

“It was beautiful to experience the church from around the world come together in union with the pope and divine to spend time in prayer with the Father,” she said.

She said Pope Francis sets the church “on fire” in a way no one else can.

“He evokes passion and motivation in all to spread not only the word of the Gospel, but also carry out the actions called upon us by the Gospel,” she said.

St. John Paul II instituted World Youth Day in 1986 when he was the pope. This year’s celebration in Panama marked the 34th annual World Youth Day and the 14th time it was celebrated with an international event. Each Palm Sunday is designated as World Youth Day, alternately celebrated at the diocesan and international levels.

Leo Luna, 24, described his pilgrimage to Panama as intense and said the days he spent in Panama were “transformational in my faith.”

Luna, who attends St. Rita Church, said he left the church in his early 20s, even feeling hatred for it. Seeking answers, he said, he attended World Youth Day and experienced something profound.

“The big message I took away is that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, from which I have denied for years,” he said. “Because of my World Youth Day experience, I now consider myself Catholic. It gave me the assurance and answer I was desperately seeking,” said Luna, whose brother Fermin is a seminarian studying to be a priest for the archdiocese.

This was the second World Youth Day experience for Caryn Crush, 30. She previously attended the young adult event in Poland in 2016. Crush, a parishioner of Guardian Angels Church, said participating in the pilgrimage was a “small glimpse of what we imagine heaven will be liked — surrounded by such contagious joy and excitement and love for our Lord and one another.”

She noted the theme of the youth gathering — “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word,” is referred to as Mary’s “fiat.” Fiat means “let it be” in Latin.

“We need to trust like Mary did. We need to give our ‘fiat’ like Mary did. It does not matter the size of the task that God is
asking us,” she said.

Crush, who is a teacher at Sacred Heart Preschool, said she “gained a renewed spirit” through the experience.

“I have never felt so ready for Lent in my life … I am ready to give my ‘fiat’ in all the little ways and the big ways,” she added. “I have gained a deeper sense of healing and renewed spirit ready for the next chapter of life,” she said.

John Sohl is no stranger to World Youth Day. He previously attended World Youth Days in Madrid in 2011, in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 and in Krakow in 2016. This pilgrimage, he said, was special in its own right.

He also said he connected with the theme of this year’s pilgrimage. And he noted Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz’s consecration of the archdiocese to Mary at the Living Rosary celebration in 2017.

“Mary is going to lead the way for us in the archdiocese, to say yes to the will of God exactly as we were always designed to. Our hearts and minds are fertile ground waiting to be transformed,” he said.

Sohl also described a particularly powerful moment he experienced in Panama, one that he called life-changing.

He and a couple of other pilgrims received a blessing from a group of Sisters of the Lord Jesus Christ, a Charismatic Franciscan community. While the sisters said prayers of healing over them, he said he felt a sense of calm and peace.

“I asked God to give me the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The prayers were so intense I’ve never experienced something that profound. What it’s given me is motivation to heal my own wounds of brokenness and sinfulness and help me find a deeper sense of openness beyond my own world,” said Sohl, who leads the Circle of Life youth ministry program at St. Luke, St. Rita and St. Athanasius parishes.

Dolson, who had previously attend World Youth Days in Denver in 1993 and Toronto in 2002, said witnessing hundreds of thousands gathered together to live out their faith was a “powerful testimony to the young church.”

It was powerful to see “the desire to be connected and to find belonging amidst … people you can call brothers and sisters and our papa was there, our Holy Father,” he said.

Dolson said the group plans to reconvene in March to reflect upon their experiences and “talk about how to bring them into our lives and ministries here locally.”

Pope Francis rode in the Popemobile past a crowd of pilgrims, including those from the Archdiocese of Louisville, during World Youth Day festivities last month in Panama.

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