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World Youth Day: Rain hasn't dampened Missourians' enthusiasm in Rio

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 26, 2013: St. Louisans had been singing in the rain and wind at World Youth Day in Rio for four days and nights

“The sun came out this morning. For the first time we could see the statue of Christ the Redeemer on the Corcovado mountain overlooking the city,” said Chris Venverloh, 23, a member of St. George Parish in Gardenville in south St. Louis County. He spoke by phone as he and 20 other Missouri young adults prepared to leave their hotel for Copacabana Beach where they would join more than 1 million young people in praying the Way of the Cross, a Catholic devotion that recalls Gospel accounts of Jesus final hours.

For most of the Missourians, the highlight of the six-day World Youth Day up to then came Thursday night at a Mass with the pope on the same beach. As wind off the Atlantic blew Pope Francis’ white shoulder cape over his head, he encouraged the pilgrims to endure the weather saying, “Young people are stronger than the rain.”

“Before Mass, it was so exciting seeing over 1 million young adults, see many with flags from so many countries,” said Nick Koeppel, 21. In five days, he said he has spoken to young adults from 20 to 25 countries: many Argentineans, Brazilians, South Africans, Chileans, Colombians as well the Germans who are staying in the same hotel, and scores from English-speaking countries who have shared bishops’ morning classes with the Missourians. “Last night it seemed like the whole world was there. We were cheering the pope and chanting in Portuguese “We are the Youth of the Pope.”

Other repeatedly chanted a line the pope used in his greeting at Mass: “Bota fé” which means put on faith in Portuguese.

Koeppel is a member of St. Vincent De Paul Parish in Cape Girardeau and also spoke by phone. Praying with and hearing the pope Thursday night at Mass last night was “really awesome,” Venverloh and Koeppel each said.

For the papal Mass, the Missourians, had a “pretty good” site, the St. Louis Archdiocesan Young Adult Ministry director Brian Miller tweeted. Huge television screens were placed every score of rows on the beaches’ aisles so all could see the altar. The pope rode up and down the aisles in his open-sided pope mobile.  

Thursday night, from his raised beach sanctuary platform near the altar, Francis welcomed them to the shore saying “I am reminded of the moment when Jesus called the first disciples to follow him by the shores of Lake Tiberias,” he said, according to the Vatican official English translation. “Today Christ asks each of us again: Do you want to be my disciple? Do you want to be my friend? Do you want to be a witness to my Gospel? In the spirit of The Year of Faith, these questions invite us to renew our commitment as Christians. “

Last winter, immediately after his election, when Francis stepped onto the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square he asked for the people’s prayers before he gave them a blessing. That interactive gesture was mirrored on the Rio beach Mass, when he said he hoped to be confirmed in the faith by their enthusiasm.

“Your families and local communities have passed on to you the great gift of faith, Christ has grown in you,” the pope said. “I have come today to confirm you in this faith, faith in the living Christ who dwells within you, but I have also come to be confirmed by the enthusiasm of your faith!”

The rain led to the beach being substituted for what was going to be an eight-mile hike to an all-night prayer and hymn fest. Now the vigil will end around midnight and the participants can sleep in the warmth of their hotel.

Early start

The Missourians arrived Monday evening. Tuesday they got up before 6 a.m. (4 a.m. in St. Louis) and went to Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. As they returned to downtown, they joined strangers chanting about how they were the young people of the church in Portuguese.

At the Quinta de Boa Vista Park, WYD Vocation Fair included a bunge jump stall, samba bandstands and hot dog stands. But the real focus were the more than 100 booths staffed by religious orders. Jesuits, Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, Carmelites, Sisters of St. Joseph, Religious of the Sacred Heart and many, many other international orders of priests, brothers and sisters explained their way of life to the young adults. Pope Francis’s Jesuit Society of Jesus seemed to get the largest crowds.

“The fair was really good with so many booths,” said Venverloh, who plans to become a priest.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, the young pilgrims were assigned to sessions given by 200 bishops’ sessions in more than 20 languages. Just eight of the bishops are from the U.S. Bishops and priests – including one of the Missouri chaplains Rev. Joseph Webber, pastor od St. Justin the Martyr Parish in south St. Louis County -- also heard confessions.

St. Louis native and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan kicked off the morning lecture series for the 21 Missourians and English-speaking youth from Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Nigeria and other countries. The second day the Missourians heard Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia; and Friday Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.  

Dolan’s high energy was a hit with his fellow St. Louisans, Venverloh said. Dolan said he was impressed by the world-wide diversity of the gathering and how they were smiling and united as children of God. When he arrived he said and walked around the opening Mass it was pouring rain and he was shivering and wet. Young people had been there longer and were soaked, too.

“I get such a boost just to see them. They could care less if they are soaking wet, there is no griping,” Dolan said to his New York archdiocesan radio station’s audience Thursday. “They are thrilled to be here with people who share their faith.”

Dolan also talked about how young people need to follow Pope Francis’ lead and be in solidarity with the poor and not to be entranced by the materialism of a consumer society. 

The Australian archbishop spoke to the Missourians and other English speaking youth about what it should mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He stressed that they must  learn everything they could about scripture and the centuries of Catholic teaching, Venverloh said.

On Friday, Cardinal O’Malley told the gathered youth that the first step to being an evangelizer is their own conversion.

Pope's message

O’Malley referred to Pope Francis’ heartfelt visit the day before to the shanty towns of Rio and a hospital for those challenged by drug addiction. At both places despite the crowds the pope actually spoke face-to-face with many.

In the shanty town the pope easily thanked the poor for welcoming him and called upon people whose lives are more comfortable to be generous to others.

According to the Vatican English translation of his text, he said:

“I say this because when we are generous in welcoming people and sharing something with them – some food, a place in our homes, our time – not only do we no longer remain poor: we are enriched. I am well aware that when someone needing food knocks at your door, you always find a way of sharing food; as the proverb says, one can always “add more water to the beans”! And you do so with love, demonstrating that true riches consist not in material things, but in the heart!”

Francis said that the Brazilians “particularly the humblest among you, can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity, a word that is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity!”

“No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.

He said “the culture of selfishness and individualism” often prevails in our society but it does not make a better world. “It is the culture of solidarity that does so.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.