On Monday, July 31, young pilgrims from the Diocese of Richmond arrived in Fátima, Portugal, one day before World Youth Day (WYD) began in Lisbon. For many, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but it was also just the beginning of the experience.
The 16 pilgrims, led by Father Joe Goldsmith, pastor of St. John, Dinwiddie; St. James, Hopewell; and Church of the Sacred Heart, Prince George, were traveling with Blue Eagle Ministries (BEM), an outreach program for young Hispanic Catholics. Father Goldsmith is BEM’s spiritual director and group coordinator.
The BEM pilgrims had about two hours to explore the sanctuary. Inside, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary towers over the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children.
“My family and I are very devoted to the holy rosary, and in her appearances, the Virgin recommended praying the rosary more,” said Mariana Muñoz. “It’s something I’ve heard about since I was a child.”
Her younger sister, Beatriz Muñoz, enjoyed reading about the apparitions and the lives of the shepherd children who witnessed them. “There are statues of two saints, St. Jacinta Marto and St. Francisco Marto,” she said. “The story of the apparitions is written on the walls. There were also enormous statues for the Stations of the Cross, so you can see the Passion in lots of detail.”
Nathalia Carreon was also traveling with her sister, Ximena Carreon. “Going to Fátima today was incredible,” said Nathalia. “I don’t even have a word to describe it. You can’t describe the feeling. It’s something that you feel inside.”
Nathalia and Ximena went to Mass when they arrived, then did an act of penance along with hundreds of other faithful: they walked on their knees from one side of a hill down to the place where the Virgin Mary appeared.
“I was crying the whole time,” said Nathalia. “Everyone is kind of going at different speeds. It’s not that people are bumping into you, but that we’re all helping each other finish.”
“We’re all carrying our own cross,” she continued. “Knowing that there are other people that believe, it’s like we’re all united. We’re all one.”
The arduous journey called to mind the Passion of Christ in an immediate way. “You would think about what Jesus went through when he was nailed to the cross, and it’s like, our problems aren’t real problems,” said Nathalia. “Everyone is struggling to kneel all the way down, but the real sacrifice is what Jesus did to save us.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and I probably won’t ever again,” said Ximena. “At least not in the same way.”
Carolina Luna, a parishioner of Sacred Heart, Richmond, said her experience walking on her knees was a way to say yes to God, just as Mary did at the Annunciation. “We have to be ready for God’s call,” she said. “As Mary said yes, I am ready to say yes.”
She did not know about the opportunity, but she did not hesitate to join when she saw what was happening. “Sometimes, I think God wants us to react,” she said. “Don’t think about it, just do it.”
Along the way, the group prayed two rosaries. “The body was hurting, but the soul was relieved,” she said.
Aylin Godoy, a parishioner of St. Augustine, Richmond, echoed Nathalia’s comments on the Passion. “It was a pain that made you rethink everything,” she said. “Compared to the Passion, this was nothing, and it hurt. What Jesus went through was 100 times worse.”
“It was beautiful,” she added. “It was a long way to go, but it was a once in a lifetime experience.”
‘Hope for the future’
The BEM group stayed at a house in Maia, Portugal, run by the Comboni Missionaries, along more than 100 other young pilgrims from around the world. Some were from Portugal, others from Macau, others from Spain, Italy and Germany, and a few of the pilgrims are originally from Africa. The house functions as the Comboni headquarters for youth ministry in Portugal.
“Many of these young people are connected in some way to the Comboni family, whether they know us or they work with us in their home countries,” said Father Filipe Resende, a Portuguese Comboni missionary. “We wanted them to meet, to be here together, to prepare together as we go to Lisbon.”
“This moment is beautiful because we are all different. People from all over the world gather because of one reason: Jesus Christ,” he continued. “You find yourself sharing your deep thoughts and faith with someone you barely know. That is hope for the future, for fraternity in the world.”
“There’s definitely a really good sense of unity,” said Nathalia. “It gives me hope. I feel like the world is changing, but I have a lot of faith that people will continue to practice their faith and love God.”
“It’s always nice to meet new people,” said Mariana. “But even more so when they are young Catholics, because I identify more with them.”
As the pilgrims learn to navigate cultural boundaries and language barriers in the Comboni house, Father Filipe stresses openness to others. “Don’t close yourself in yourself,” he said. “Don’t close yourself in your way of worshiping, in your way of journey with God, or in your culture. There are so many ways of worshiping the same God.”
“Sometimes, we have a sense of faith as something alone – me, my faith, my God,” he continued. “The more open I am, the less the focus is on myself, the more the focus is on God. We want to bring the message to these young people: ‘We are not working alone. We are working together.’”
For Father Goldsmith, praying for others is a way to stay united as a community. “If we travel without think about others, we travel alone in a way that we don’t need to,” he said. “With the Lord in our hearts, with our faith and deep love that we have, with the prayers that we carry with us, we are always connected.”
16,000 attend Mass in Porto
At WYD, more than a million pilgrims come together for an encounter with the pope. In the past, as many as 5 million attended the 1995 closing Mass at WYD in Manila, Philippines. On Saturday, July 29, the BEM pilgrims got a taste of what the experience will be like, attending Mass in a public park in Porto, Portugal, along with 16,000 other people.
“That was the first time that we saw a big group of Catholic youth that were coming with us to Lisbon,” said Ximena. “That was when it really clicked for me that there are so many young Catholics from all over the world.”
“I’ve never been to a Mass that big or in so many different languages,” she added. “It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
“I’ve been to Mass in a park before, but never with so many people, or so many priests and bishops,” said Mariana. “They read the Gospel in five languages.”
Recounting the nations that they saw represented, Mariana and Beatriz named Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines, Congo, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela and Argentina.
“It was the first time we saw more than 10,000 of us, and I know in Lisbon for WYD, it’s going to be millions,” said Nathalia. “Seeing a little piece of what that was — seeing all the flags, knowing people from all over the world that share the same beliefs you do, having Mass in ten different languages – it was just surreal.”