A teen-age diary of World Youth Day


Monday, Aug.14

Our pilgrimage begins! Our group of 15 from St. Francis by the Sea (myself, Angela and Dominique Cavalluzzi, Steve Milana, Alyssa Petro, Caroline Rankin, Catherine and Diane Reilley, Molly and Meg Strimpfel, Andrew Wilson, and Christy and Joy Wrightson) was joined by two young adults from Blessed Sacrament in Charleston, Eric Helmueller and Kelley Price. Rounding out the group was Alex Ippoliti, a young man from St. Meinrad, Ind., who joined our pilgrimage via the Internet. We are going to World Youth Day in Rome, Italy, under the leadership of John and Rosemary DeWolfe, youth volunteers at St. Francis by the Sea. We, this diverse group of 18, are joining 575 others traveling with the Franciscan University of Steubenville Journeys Department. This day has been two years in the making, and I can’t believe it’s finally here! We’re all so thrilled to have the privilege of going to Rome in the Jubilee Year. We don’t know what to expect, but we’re ready for whatever God wants.

Tuesday, Aug. 15

I can’t believe we’re here! After we celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church — it’s the Feast of the Assumption — we headed to St. Peter Square for the opening ceremony of World Youth Day. We had our first experience with Roman transportation. (Visualize the “clown car” at the circus where they cram as many clowns as possible into one car. That’s the way the buses are, only with pickpockets!)

When we arrived at St. Peter Square, we joined tens of thousands of youth, all of different nationalities, waving flags and singing songs. We worked our way down to the middle of St. Peter Square and awaited the arrival of our beloved Holy Father, John Paul II. He was due to arrive at St. Peter around 6:45 p.m. The closer it got to his arrival, the louder and more crowded the square became. When he entered St. Peter Square, the crowd was unbelievable! They were so forceful, all wishing to see the pope, that they lifted us off our feet. The pope zoomed by in his popemobile about 25 feet away from us. I didn’t see him because of the crowd; however, when he got to the stage, we could see him. It was amazing! Here we were, only a couple hundred feet away from the vicar of Christ. I think I now understand the concept of the papacy better than I ever have or ever will. It became so clear that a universal church, with such diverse members, needs a single leader. It’s one thing to see the Catholic Church from the aspect of the United States and wonder why our leadership would be in Rome, but after seeing these hundreds of thousands of young people, all representatives of various countries and all Catholic, it’s clear that the church couldn’t exist without our Holy Father. We need the teaching authority he provides. He’s not leading a group, he’s fathering a family. The highlight of the opening ceremony was when everyone began chanting, “John Paul II, we love you!” and he responded, “John Paul II loves you too!”

Wednesday, Aug. 16

Today we visited St. John the Lateran. It’s the church of the Diocese of Rome and used to be the papal residence. It houses a piece of the table on which the Last Supper took place.

We attended Incontragiovani (cultural and religious activities put on by different World Youth Day participants) with the Franciscan University that evening at San Antonio de Padua a Via Meruluna, a lovely church dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua. The ironic thing is we got lost on the way there. You’d think that while seeking a church that honors St. Anthony, who is the patron of lost things, we’d have better luck in locating it. Nope. What was only a five-minute walk from St. John the Lateran ended up taking about 45 minutes! It didn’t really matter, though, because getting lost in Rome is entirely different from getting lost in, say, Cleveland. When you’re lost in Rome, you see so many awesome things it doesn’t matter that you don’t know where you are. I can think of many sights we would have missed had we not taken a wrong turn.

The Incontragiovani with the Franciscan University was fantastic. It was hosted by Father Dave Pikonka, a Third Order Regular of St. Francis priest. The speakers (who were excellent!) included Jeff Cavins; Bishop Sam Jacobs; and Jim Beckman, youth minister at the Catholic church in Littleton, Colo. He presented a powerful testimony about the Columbine shootings.

Following the Incontragiovani, we visited the American Stage. It was a huge stage, a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, and a gathering area for America youth.

We began our trek home around 10 p.m., but actually arrived at the hotel much later. We had to find our elusive bus. There must have been well over 100 different lines of buses running through Rome. One entire line, the “J” line, was added just for the Jubilee Year! We walked all over, searching for the right stop. We met more people, most of them singing and chanting.

We eventually found our bus. It was crowded. No, crowded is an inadequate expression. It was bursting with people. I’m amazed that it could run with so many people on it. We didn’t know when the next one would come, though, so we took a deep breath and stepped on. There must have been 200 people on this bus. You couldn’t even see the seats. It was stuffy, and you could barely stand on your feet because of the crowd. It was one of the most uncomfortable situations of my life, and yet everyone was singing! The individuals in our group looked at each other, thought ‘Why not?’ and started singing “L’Emmanuel,” the World Youth Day theme song. We sang songs whose melodies we recognized but didn’t know the language. When Christy suggested that we sing a song in English, we threw some song titles out to see what worked. We had to think universal, so we started “Jingle Bells” and some others. Then, an Italian man who had overheard our conversation interrupted us and said, with a thick accent, “Eh, what about ‘We are the World, We are the Children'”? Hey! Wouldn’t you know everyone else knew it, too! We joked with songs and chatted in Italian and English, and before we knew it, the ride was over.

What could have been one of the worst moments of our trip ended up being one of my favorites. It was a great moment that captured the universality of our pilgrimage and our church.

Thursday, Aug. 17

Wow. Today we came home, not to South Carolina, but to St. Peter Basilica. I think it is the equivalent of coming home for any Catholic. It is the very heart of Catholicism and one of the greatest treasures of our faith. It is a wealth of art and tradition. We entered through the Holy Doors (the same doors opened by our Holy Father on New Year’s Eve) and immediately were greeted by the familiar site of Michaelangelo’s Pieta. St. Peter is a place that you don’t just visit, but experience. It was wonderful to be there with so many youth from other countries. In the United States, it’s easy to think that we are the church, but the church is so much more than us.

Friday, Aug. 18

Today, following our celebration of the Mass, we began to prepare for the heart of our pilgrimage, the vigil and Holy Mass with the pope at Tor Vergata.

We went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The highlight of this church is the crib of Christ that is under the altar. Seeing the crib that held Christ was amazing. It captured the essence of our tradition as Catholics. This crib has been kept in a place of honor in the church for 2,000 years! We are blessed to belong to a church that places such a high value on tradition. For the faithful to be able to see the crib of Christ and the chains that bound St. Paul are tremendous gifts.

Once we returned from our day trip, we attempted to pack for our overnight stay in what we were told was a big field. (Few of us actually brought sleeping bags; blankets were easier to pack.) We knew that the pilgrimage to the vigil site would involve riding the Metro (subway) to the end of the line and then walking about three miles. Beyond that, we had no idea. We packed the best we could and went to bed.

Saturday to Sunday, Aug. 19 to 20

Our group is somewhere on the outskirts of Rome with a gorgeous view of hills far off and a sea of humanity numbering over two million. I do mean over two million — 2.1 million to quote the “news” guys. It’s the most people I’ve ever seen in one place.

Our day began with Mass at our hotel. Father Dave said in his homily that this would be the hardest day of our pilgrimage. He explained that our day would be full of trials. We, as pilgrims, needed to “keep our eyes on the prize” which would be seeing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. We had to embrace suffering today and be able to see Jesus in our neighbor. If we were not able to do that, we’d miss the whole concept behind the pilgrimage.

We made it to the Metro, and it was very crowded. When the train pulled up, it was already standing room only. We inhaled deeply and boarded. We started out fine, but it became hot and even more crowded. We sang praise and worship songs, which quickly turned to Christmas carols (praying for snow?). It was so hot and crowded that we felt faint and claustrophobic. The trains were moving slowly due to the influx of passengers. Creeping through a dark passage on an overcrowded train with no air circulation was not fun.

We arrived at the start of our pilgrimage and received our box of food for the next two days. Great! More to carry! We saw people of Indian descent carrying the boxes on their heads, perfectly balanced. Since that was not an option for most of us, we minimized the contents and got on our way. After receiving strict orders to stay hydrated (It was HOT! We found out later that it was the hottest weekend in Italian record-keeping history!), we began walking. It was hard. I’d be lying if I said that it was a wonderful, blessed experience. That’s not what we were thinking. I felt quite ill, and it was hard to see God in our surroundings. However, he was there if you asked him to open your eyes. Then you could see the many volunteers passing out water, and the firemen spraying us with cool water. I saw the charity of those in my group who offered to carry the bags of the people who were feeling badly. (As Eric put it, “I can carry their bag, or I can carry the person after they pass out. I’d rather carry the bag.”) Looking back, the walk to the vigil was a trying time, but it enriched my faith in a profound way. I could write forever on the things I learned in those few hours. We should never underestimate the value of our suffering. Sacrifice is hard, very hard, but the rewards are amazing. (All in all, the walk was more than three miles (10 kilometers) and took about three hours.)

We eventually found our place at the vigil site, centrally located between water and the porta-potties. I’ve never seen so many people, all friendly and not speaking English. That part’s a little intimidating. But the walk was over, and we were ready to see the pope!

Later that evening, as we listened to the radio station that translated the events, we heard, “The Holy Father has entered the vigil site.” At first we couldn’t tell (that’s how far away everything was and how spread out we were — the vigil site was 80 acres!), and then we saw the popemobile drive by, slowly, about 500 feet from us! We ran toward the path we thought it might take. We missed a very good view of him as he was driven to the other side of the site. We were now about a quarter of a mile from the stage, which was a fantastic location. We thought that perhaps the pope would drive back the way he came, which would bring him near to where we stood. We waited for five minutes as it became more and more crowded. We couldn’t see the popemobile, but suddenly we saw light coming over the hill directly in front of us. What I saw next I’ll never forget. There, coming over the hill, was our Holy Father! He was standing up in the car with his arms outstretched, as though he was trying to embrace the crowd. The lights illuminated him from behind — a beautiful sight! We could see little lights all spread out in the darkness of the crowd. It looked like the Milky Way.

After the prayer vigil, we met to discuss our role as eucharistic ministers at Mass the next morning.

We tried to get some sleep, which was impossible. The lights in the field were on all night. It also became cold — really, really cold. Not only was the walk to the vigil on the hottest day of the summer, that night was the coldest of the season. Time to suffer and sacrifice again. We did get a little sleep. (Did you know that tennis shoes can make a very effective pillow? It’s all in how you arrange them.)

We woke up around 5:30 a.m. on Sunday and prepared to be eucharistic ministers for our Holy Father. We received special scarves to wear. The girls had to wear skirts that covered our knees, and the guys had to wear slacks. We were hardly fashion plates, but we tried to look nice.

We received our instruction from the people in charge (who spoke some English). We were to receive our ciborium from our station and then follow an usher to a place where we would distribute the Blessed Sacrament. We were to say, “Corpus Christi.” (Latin, the language of the church, how useful to have at an event like this!) We were not to administer the Eucharist to anyone not wearing a shirt, and everyones’ shoulders had to be covered. (How to tell people they weren’t dressed properly was beyond me. Luckily, I didn’t have to.) I was struck by the reverence of the people to whom I distributed Communion. It was a profound experience to distribute the Body and Blood of Christ to my Catholic brothers and sisters.

After Mass concluded, it was time to make our way back to the hotel by way of the same pilgrimage route. Yikes! It was even more crowded than when we came. At the Metro station there were thousands of people milling around, and we got word that the station was closed. We walked to the next stop about a mile away.

As we made our way through city streets, people passed out from exhaustion and heat exposure. At that point, we were in a small group with our wonderful chaperone, Joy Wrightson, and a couple other youth. (We had agreed to stay in the small groups since it would be impossible to keep track of so many people in such a massive crowd.) As we walked through the streets, it became quite fun. The people who lived in the apartments poured water on us, and some of the citizens took pictures and videos of us. They yelled to us, and we really enjoyed ourselves. We arrived at the next Metro station, but it is was closed, too.

We began to worry and looked for any way to get away from the crowd, which was the cause of the clogged transportation. We walked to another Metro station that was not on our line. It, too, was closed. We took a pit stop and called our hotel, taxis, even the American Embassy. It was Sunday, though, so no one was of much help. We got some food and decided we really had no other choice than to keep walking. We rested, admired our sunburns (the sun is very strong in Rome, even with sunscreen) and kept walking.

We finally made it to an open Metro station. It was incredibly crowded, but it was open. Groups were waiting in different sections. At one point we waited in a crowded hall, and there were no windows and no air and lots of people. When you can’t see the sun, and it’s so stuffy and crowded you really start to get panicky. We were so glad when they let us into the hall near the track to catch the train. It was crowded, but we knew we were on the last leg of the trip. We took the Metro to our stop and were all absolutely elated to see the hotel. Pilgrimages are nice, but as Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home.”

We left the vigil site around 12 p.m. and arrived at the hotel around 7 p.m. We figured we had walked at least seven to 12 miles that day. It was an overwhelming experience. World Youth Day 2000 in Rome was officially over. Can’t wait for Toronto in 2002!

I hope I haven’t overshadowed the wonderful pilgrimage experience with the descriptions of our hardships. Any difficulties we encountered along the way were all part of our experience and brought us closer to each other and closer to God. World Youth Day was my first experience with a real pilgrimage, and it was a fantastic one. I would do everything all over again in a heartbeat, even the walk to and from the vigil site. All the cultural and spiritual experiences I had were invaluable, and I would recommend World Youth Day to anyone. It gave the phrase, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic,” a whole new meaning. Mark your calendars. Toronto in 2002 is right around the corner, and our Holy Father wants to see us all there!

Alison is 17 and a member of St. Francis by the Sea Parish in Hilton Head. This diary was edited by Barbara Griswold and Rosemary DeWolfe.