Pilgrims find joy at World Youth Day

Archdiocese of Louisville pilgrims smiled for a selfie during their Aug. 1 to 6 trip to World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. They were among 25 young adult Catholics who represented the archdiocese at the worldwide event with Pope Francis. World Youth Day drew more than 1.5 million people from nearly every country in the world. (Photo Special to The Record)

Special to The Record

It may have been just a six-day trip, but for those in attendance at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, the impact was life-changing they said.

A group of 25, including young adult Catholics from the Archdiocese of Louisville and their friends, attended the Aug. 1 to 6 event, which brought together more than 1.5 million Catholics from almost every country. 

“It’s a powerful witness to the universal church and an amazing opportunity to encounter the church,” said Bryan Cain, a parishioner of St. Rita Church who organized the trip. Cain was one of about 600,000 pilgrims to attend World Youth Day in 2019 in Panama City, Panama, and felt called to lead the trip this time.

Anna Reynolds, a parishioner of St. John Paul II Church in Sellersburg, Ind., said she went to World Youth Day completely open to God’s will in her life. 

“As far as vocations, I saw missionary work, marriage and religious life all equally desirable and wanted some direction from God for him to reveal his desire for me,” she said.

Upon arriving at their first Mass with Pope Francis and seeing the huge crowd of people from all different countries, she was overcome with the Holy Spirit, she said, noting “The joy was so great, I was overcome with emotions.”

“You can cut the Holy Spirit with a knife if that were metaphysically possible,” Cain said. “The joy, the faith, the encounter with the universal church is unparalleled.

The next three days included daily Mass and gatherings called “Rise Up Encounters.” A new model of World Youth Day catechesis, guest speakers challenged the young adults to reflect on larger themes pointed out by Pope Francis’ pontificate: integral ecology, social friendship and mercy, according to the World Youth Day website. Cain said one speaker reminded them that if they came to World Youth Day hoping to see a famous person or relics, they were there for the wrong reason.

Each night the pilgrims slept on the gym floor at Pavilhão Desportivo Celorico Moreira stadium and one night in a field on dirt and rocks beneath the stars so that when they woke up, they would be there to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis. 

The lack of comforts and having only the bare necessities during their trip was a humbling experience, Reynolds said. It made her reflect on how grateful and blessed she is, she said.

“Somehow, being stripped of all comforts in a foreign country with the hot sun beating against me, weight on my back and tired body, I have never experienced such an immense amount of happiness in all my life,” she said. “Without having much, you begin to appreciate everything, and without the distractions of daily life and the busyness and noise of the world, I began to see God in everything.”

Cain said it seemed like every pilgrim had a powerful, providential experience in unexpected ways, whether it be taking the wrong bus or getting delayed in a crowd. 

“You learn God will provide, whether it’s the timing you expect or not,” he said.

Cain said he and three others in the group missed the bus leaving Fatima. Since they were already going to spend money taking a taxi back to Lisbon, they decided to stay for a candlelight vigil that began with the rosary — prayed in several different languages and led by a bishop. Before coming on the trip, Cain said he wanted to reinvigorate his devotion to the rosary, as it had gotten lost in the shuffle of life. Praying at the Chapel of Apparitions at Fatima is a moment he will never forget, and, he said, it reinvigorated his devotion to Mary and to the rosary.

‘Somehow, being stripped of all comforts in a foreign country with the hot sun beating against me, weight on my back and tired body, I have never experienced such an immense amount of happiness in all my life.’

— Anna Reynolds, World Youth Day pilgrim

Brittany Jackson, a member of St. James Church in Elizabethtown, Ky., said one of her favorite memories was on the walk back from the overnight vigil. It was about 106 degrees, and everyone was tired and hungry. She and her group found a shady patch of grass on the side of the road, and shortly thereafter, a group of pilgrims from Italy sat down beside them. They had just come back from a nearby grocery and were divvying out their items. 

“They offered us cold sodas and popsicles,” she said. “In this moment, we saw the needs of our neighbor. This simple act allowed us to all enjoy that moment of bliss — enjoying an ice-cold popsicle together. Such a simple act of kindness meant so much.”

Reflecting on her experience at World Youth Day, Jackson said she is reminded daily how contagious joy is.

“Even when I was experiencing a tough day mentally during my pilgrimage, it was the joy of others that put a smile back on my face. I want to bring forth that joy, that light, to the people I encounter each day. Also, the experience has taught me to not be embarrassed to display my faith. I used to get nervous to pray in public, worried that someone might judge me. But being around so many fellow Catholics who prayed together without any fear gave me a sense of courage that I hope to continue to live out in my days to come.” 

As far as her discernment, Reynolds said she is still processing everything from the trip. However, she said, God revealed to her the theme of service: to be an advocate for the disadvantaged, to give her heart in compassion to others and to love and serve all.

World Youth Day 2027 will be held in Seoul, South Korea, and Reynolds encourages other young Catholics to attend. 

“Come encounter God’s love, united and universal, that is so deep and so true it will bring you to tears,” she said. “Leave your home, be in a state of openness and let God transform you. And to those of you who have recently attended, we are all on a pilgrimage, the pilgrimage through life and this is only the beginning.”

For reflections from local pilgrims who traveled to Lisbon for World Youth Day, click here.

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