By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2011
Grace Lee will be one of millions of young people streaming into Madrid on a pilgrimage of faith.
The Spanish capital in late August hosts the 2011 World Youth Day, a three-day celebration of faith, built around the theme: “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith.”
On her first trip to Europe, Lee will be among people speaking languages she won’t understand, but she feels a shared faith will shatter any barrier.
“It’s a great sense of unity with people that you have nothing in common with,” said the 22-year-old Georgia State University student. Her home parish is Koreans Martyrs Church, Doraville.
Close to 90 women and men from the Atlanta Archdiocese are traveling to Europe, joining the more than 29,000 young people from the United States who registered to attend the event from Aug. 16 to 21. This is a record number of participants from the U.S. heading to a World Youth Day outside North America. Overall, more than 1 million people are expected at the final Mass with Pope Benedict XVI on the celebration’s final day.
Three pilgrims will represent the United States at the vigil with the pope the night of Saturday, Aug. 20, including An Dai Tran, 28, of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The group will have special seating near the pope.
“I was pretty much shocked. I said this couldn’t be happening to me,” Tran said when he heard the news. He said it is a great privilege to be sitting in the front row during the Mass. The young man works in the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship.
World Youth Day draws young people from around the world, to celebrate and learn about the Catholic Church. The event started some 25 years ago and meets every three years, with hundreds of thousands of people at the exuberant festival of faith. Classes will be taught by bishops in 30 different languages.
For people unable to travel, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops organized a virtual pilgrimage on Facebook. The site has already attracted more than 3,000 users.
For some, it’s an opportunity to gather with young people from around the globe. For others, it holds the hope of finding God’s direction for their life. And for others, the plan is to let the event unfold as God wants it.
Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama is one of those traveling with an open heart and few expectations. He is making his first trip to World Youth Day.
“God will be in charge,” he said. “My expectation is to be there and enjoy each moment there.”
Bishop Zarama celebrated a Mass for about 50 people at the Chancery in Smyrna, on Saturday, July 30. Also attending were Father Juan Guerra, of the Legion of Christ, and Father José Luis Hernández-Ayala, pastor of St. Mark Church, Clarkesville. Deacon Dennis Dorner assisted at the Mass.
Bishop Zarama said God always invites people to grow when they leave their comfort zone on a pilgrimage. People traveling to World Youth Day are taking on challenges that’ll cause some people to be uncomfortable, while others will be joyful to be among like-minded people, he said.
A pilgrimage is always a personal response to God’s invitation. “Don’t be afraid to accept the personal journey,” said Bishop Zarama. “The journey will be the journey to our hearts,” he said.
Pilgrims are going as individuals even though they will be among thousands of people, so each encounter of God will be different, he said. For some people, they may experience a blessing on the first day, others may be still seeking some sign on the flight back to Atlanta, he said.
Bishop Zarama said it will be nice to attend a Mass with the pope, but the truth is most people will be very far from the pontiff. He joked that people watching on TV will have a better view than the crowds.
“Enjoy the journey. And always keep a good smile. And be open,” said Bishop Zarama.
The first World Youth Day was held in 1984. The outline of the event remains the same. Participants have days of religious instruction. There is a papal welcome to the multitudes of people, the Way of the Cross, a nighttime vigil and a large closing Mass with the pope.
Jeff Roche, who attends St. Michael Church, Gainesville, attended his first World Youth Day in 1997 when he was a teenager and hasn’t missed one. But the events aren’t déjà vu.
“For me, it’s always a good experience. When I do go I see how much they help me. They always come at a time in my life when I really need it,” said Roche, 28, who faces a crossroads decision after returning home from college with questions about what the future holds.
Tiara Chivers, 40, said she’s been “really quieting my mind” in preparation for trip. She spent a weekend at Ignatius House recently in quiet prayer. It’ll be her second World Youth Day. She’s recently been focusing on her career too much. “I kind of got a little too busy, a little too lost.” The Cathedral of Christ the King parishioner sees this trip as an opportunity to reconnect with her faith. “It’s really a true pilgrimage for me. It’s not just a vacation or a tourist destination. It’ll be a true pilgrimage.”
Maria Naranjo is also attending her second World Youth Day. This time, she’s leading some 50 people traveling with a private travel group to Madrid from Alabama and Pennsylvania.
“It was the first time I experienced the universality of my faith,” said Naranjo, who is 30 and attends St. Jude Church, Sandy Springs and is a Hispanic youth leader, about the trip to Cologne, Germany.
There are millions of young people “on fire” with the faith, she said. “It’s almost magical. It’s a holy experience,” she said. “You want more.”