By Deirdre C. Mays
TORONTO — Buoyed by the enthusiasm of their peers, teen-agers and young adults from South Carolina were swept up in a sea of hope as they shared their faith with the hundreds of thousands who came to World Youth Day.
The theme was “You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world.”
Waves of people thronged venues around Toronto July 23-28 sharing catechesis, prayer, reconciliation, attending Mass and crowding designated routes yearning for a glimpse of the Holy Father. The streets echoed with chants of national anthems and the excited shouts of these unofficial diplomats as they spied fellow countrymen.
The exhibition center, where most of the activities took place, became home to approximately 61 participants coming from parishes throughout the Diocese of Charleston. They ranged in age from 15 to 20 and were accompanied by youth ministers and chaperones.
Their experiences ranged from leisurely to downright grubby as they engaged in activities that took them around the welcoming Canadian city to their final venue at Downsview Park, an abandoned air station with a grassy field large enough to house the mammoth stage marked by a giant yellow cross several stories high. There the diocesan group lay out their sleeping bags and blankets amidst the international thousands and spent a muddy night in vigil with the much-loved leader of the universal church.
Though they were there for a six-day experience involving inspirational prayer and talks from cardinals, bishops and other speakers, their reaction to the event was marked distinctly by the presence of Pope John Paul II and the chance to meet with teen-agers from more than 170 countries.
“This trip has been a learning experience and a way to interact and communicate with fellow Catholics from around the world,” said Jim Sigmon, 16, a member of St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton. He described the pope as a role model.
The youth groups also had ready access to other aspects of their faith such as adoration and reconciliation. Small, v-shaped purple panel dividers were designated confession spots, but during catechesis presentations priests sat cross-legged or stood around the exhibition hall to provide absolution for the jubilantly repentant pilgrims.
Guy Boudreaux, 17, and Christopher Wagner, 15, both of St. Joseph Church in Columbia, availed themselves of the sacrament. They felt no qualms about participating in such a public venue.
“I thought it was pretty interesting, said Wagner. “It feels like it goes all the way up to God because normally you are in a room. Out here there are no walls and no ceiling.”
Another outdoor experience took place in the city streets. The three-hour way of the cross was performed by actors who walked from one stage to another depicting Christ’s final days. Like all of the pope’s appearances, the event was projected onto huge screens so the massive crowds could see.
Even though it was crowded, hot, humid and, at times, rainy, the South Carolina contingent was inspired.
“There is a different vibe here,” said Kevin Canty, 15. “You hear how people have different styles of Masses in their countries. I will take home a connection from the people here, sharing the same experience from the Mass and a better experience with the Catholic religion.”
Jerry White, director of the Office of Youth and Young Adults Ministry for the diocese, hoped all of the group would come away with that attitude.
“An experience like this gives them a sense of the greater church. a sense of hope and how big the church is,” he explained. “One of the kids summed it up best in the welcome Mass when he turned around and said, ‘I didn’t know there were so many Catholics in the world.'”
And, in his homily on the last day, Pope John Paul II reminded the youth to keep that enthusiasm for their faith alive saying that the world desperately needed a new sense of brotherhood and needed to be touched and healed by the beauty and richness of God’s love.
“It needs you to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” he said.