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Bishop Hebda reflects on WYD Experience

08/03/2013

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On the Mount of the Transfiguration, Peter exclaimed: “It is good for us to be here.” Those words have been my own as I have travelled with our young pilgrims from the Diocese of Gaylord to join Pope Francis for World Youth Day in Brazil. The enthusiasm of the millions of young people who have gathered throughout the city of Rio de Janiero is contagious and has been matched only by the outpouring of love that has come from Pope Francis who made the long trip from Rome to be here with Catholic youth.

Our group is phenomenal. Their patience has been remarkable. We travelled more than 24 hours by way of Detroit and São Paulo before we arrived at our hotel and I didn’t hear a single complaint. It seems appropriate that a pilgrimage should involve some sacrifice. That sacrifice was magnified by the weather that awaited us in Rio—unusually rainy and cold (even for hearty Michiganders).

IMG_20130729_191603.jpgThe structure of the gathering has been perfect. After the soggy opening Mass with Archbishop Tempesta on Copacabana Beach, we were given the opportunity for three mornings of catechesis. Groups divided by language. Our group was assigned to a concert venue, Vivo Rio, with 3000 other English speakers from Canada, Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa and many other places. The mornings began with praise music led by nationally and internationally known Catholic musicians who had little difficulty getting the blood pumping. The heart of each session was the catechetical instruction. We were blessed with three of the best presenters imaginable: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Although they manifested very different styles, all three received high marks from the group from Gaylord who shared my amazement at the great questions that were asked and the depth of the answers given. Each morning closed with the celebration of the Eucharist. The singing and participation was extraordinary.

Fr. Peter Wigton and I both had the honor of hearing confessions and concelebrating Mass on those three mornings, along with dozens of other priests. What a privilege to walk with the young penitents on their journey of faith.

Redeemer_Statue.JPGThe excitement of the event was taken up a notch with the official welcoming of Pope Francis on Thursday evening. It could not have been clearer that the Holy Father really wanted to be here with these young people. His love was palpable and his message compelling. Most of us were amazed that the storms seemed to subside just as the ceremony ended and Pope Francis kicked off the 2013 gathering. It was precisely at that time that we all caught our first glimpse of the amazing statue of Christ the Redeemer that overlooks the city of Rio. Most of the members of our group have already had the chance to ascend Corcovado to see the statue and described the setting as “holy ground.”

We all returned on Friday evening for Stations of the Cross with Pope Francis. The members of our group waited for hours along the route of Pope Francis’ motorcade and were just feet from the Holy Father, making the moving Stations of the Cross that evening particularly memorable.

After some high-level strategizing, the group split up on Saturday morning, with part of the group participating in a six-mile pilgrimage and the others staking out a plot of sand on Copacabana Beach for the overnight vigil and Sunday Mass. The whole group reassembled later in the afternoon, excited to be part of the three million young people who gathered to be with the Holy Father. In addition to a very challenging talk from the Pope, the program included testimonies from various youth and a reflection on the impact that St. Francis of Assisi made on the Church when he was just about the age of the young people gathered in Rio. The Vigil ended with Eucharistic adoration. Try to imagine three million young people on their knees in an exquisite silence before our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament.

I checked in on our campers just before midnight and found them to be in fine form in the midst of a sea of sleeping bags and tents. They managed to brave the chill that descended on the beach and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to meet other young people. By the time the sun came up, most were sporting wristbands from around the world, providing evidence of the conversations they had shared and the friends they had made.

The Vigil culminated in the celebration of morning Mass with Pope Francis, concelebrated by dozens of cardinals, hundreds of bishops, and more than a thousand priests. The Holy Father challenged those assembled to take up Christ’s commission to “go and make disciples of all nations,” trusting they that they had nothing to fear.

Finally, as he sent them home, the Holy Father invited the youth to embrace lives of service with the same joy that had distinguished them in Rio. It was clear that the Pope enjoyed the enthusiasm of the crowds and seemed particularly delighted by the “flashmob” staged by his three million new friends, friends that he hopes to see again at World Youth Day 2016 in Cracow, Poland, the home of his soon-to-be canonized predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who began the tradition of World Youth Day.

Our hope is that our young pilgrims from the Diocese of Gaylord will be able to embrace the call to serve once back in Michigan, sharing their stories and experiences and generating devotion and excitement among their peers... and perhaps even stimulating interest in joining Pope Francis for the 2016 pilgrimage. I’m already looking forward to it.

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