‘I’ve seen lives transformed’ at World Youth Day: diocesan delegation prepares for global encounter

Father Joe Wamala, pastor of Christ the King, Norfolk, at World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland. Portugal will be his fourth trip to World Youth Day. (Photo submitted)

Across the diocese, around 60 people are packing their rosaries and walking shoes – and taking some time for reflection – as they prepare for World Youth Day (WYD), held this year from August 1-6 in Lisbon, Portugal.

Since the first gathering, led by Pope John Paul II in 1986, World Youth Day has been a chance for young people from all over the world to gather with the pope. The global Catholic encounter includes catechesis, a pilgrimage, a call to evangelization, and a celebration of the cultures – through sports, music and dance – that make us one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

After the inaugural World Youth Day was held in Vatican City, it has been scheduled every three years in locations around the world, from the Philippines to Poland to Argentina.

“It’s quite an experience, meeting all of the different people coming in from different parts of the world – to see how they express their faith, to hear all the different languages,” said Father Joseph Wamala, pastor of Christ the King, Norfolk. “I’ve seen lives transformed there.”

The diocesan group, led by the diocesan Office for Evangelization, begins their journey a week early, with a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. From there, they will travel to northern Spain to see the cathedrals of Burgos and Santiago de Compostela, and then on to Fàtima, where they will be joined by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, before going on to Lisbon.

A walk with Christ

Charlotte Torres, 18, a parishioner of St. Pius X, Norfolk, said she’s excited to go to so many new places. She’s been saving money for souvenirs, she said, and, mostly, she’s been “preparing for the trip with prayer.”

“Having that spiritual connection helps us know we have someone familiar by our side – even in foreign countries we’ve never been to, with people we’ve never met before,” she said.

Torres said she was inspired to sign up for the pilgrimage after hearing about it at church.

“It sounded like it could be an amazing experience. Not just growing in spirituality but getting to know that area in Portugal – because who wouldn’t want to go there?” she said, laughing.

The pilgrimage comes at a pivotal time in her life, she said. Having just graduated from high school, she has questions about what to do next.

“I’m hoping to grow in my faith and my relationship with God,” she said. “I’ve seen him work in marvelous ways, and I never know what he’ll call me to do or show me next, so I’m really excited to grow in a deeper relationship with him,” she said.

She is also excited to spend time with her mom and older brother, who are also signed up to go.

“We’ll be experiencing it together, but we’ll have our own personal experiences, too, so we can talk about how they are different,” she said.

Seek, and ye shall find

For Margo Sheffler, a parishioner of Church of the Epiphany, Richmond, and a middle school theology teacher at Blessed Sacrament Huguenot Catholic School, this will be her second time attending WYD.

She attended in 2019 in Panama City, she said, where she had “a fantastic time.”

Sheffler said that she’s looking forward to the trip to Lisbon – both to see places she has never traveled to before, and to once more experience Mass with the Pope.

The pilgrimage will be made all the more meaningful, she said, by Bishop Knestout’s presence.

“He has such a busy schedule,” she said. “The fact that he’s taking the time to be with us, to make the youth in his diocese a priority, means a lot.”

To prepare for the pilgrimage, Sheffler has been reading about St. Anthony of Lisbon, one of the patron saints of WYD 2023, and, famously, the patron saint of lost things. This patronage traces back to the 13th century, when the Franciscan’s psalm book – handwritten, in the days before the printing press – was taken by a novice who had left the monastery.

St. Anthony prayed for its return, and received not only his book, but the return of the novice as well, who asked for his forgiveness and to be accepted back into the fold.

In a similar spirit, Shaeffer said she hopes to give herself time for prayer as she travels, “to leave myself open to the Holy Spirit, to whatever he might bring me. To find, just a deeper understanding of who God is, and what his calling is for my life.”

“And I’m definitely bringing better walking shoes this time,” she added, laughing.

Universality of the Church

Kathleen Reuwer, a parishioner of St. Mary, Blacksburg, and a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, is heading to Lisbon with a group from her alma mater’s Catholic Campus Ministry.

“I figured this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to take some time to grow in my faith before I start working full-time,” she said.

She’s been renewing her devotion to Mary, she said, by reading and following a self-guided retreat book, in preparation for the pilgrims’ journeys to Lourdes and Fàtima.

“It reminds me of all of the ways Mary gives us graces in our life, and how the Lord chose to give us this beautiful mother,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to seeing tangibly the universality of the Church,” Reuwer said. “We always talk about how the Catholic Church is the universal Church – but seeing it truly as universal, with people from countries all across the world, I’m looking forward to seeing that.”

Time of transformation

Father Wamala has traveled to WYD several times in the past – to Cologne, Germany in 2005, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013, and to Krakow Poland, in 2016.

Each one has been a unique experience, he said. He recalled a particular time during WYD in Brazil when a mishap led to a moment of unexpected grace.

“Our venue got flooded, and so we assembled at a place large enough to hold the gathering: Copacabana beach,” he said.

There, Pope Francis led the crowds in eucharistic adoration, “and that was a very, very powerful moment,” he said. “There was almost total silence. All you could hear was the waves.”

Father Wamala said he is looking forward to visiting Fàtima and Lourdes – two places he has always wished to see – and to Mass with the pope.

“That’s always the apex of the week,” he said.

He’s especially looking forward to seeing the effect the experience has on the youth of the diocese.

“Some of the youth may be just going for the sake of it,” he said. “They are just dragging their feet. But, at the end, they are like, ‘When is the next one?’ When you see that excitement, it makes you ask, ‘Wow. Are you the same person?’”

It’s also “amazing to watch the youth form a sense of community,” Father Wamala said, making friendships, not only with pilgrims from all over the world, but from our own diocese as well.

“Our diocese is vast,” he said. “But afterwards, now they know someone form this corner, or that corner.”

“I would like to see more youth getting the chance to have this experience,” he said. “It’s not the same, telling it to somebody. You wish they could experience it for themselves.”


Meet some of the other pilgrims who are traveling with the Diocese of Richmond delegation:

Father Ken Shuping, Pastor of St. Bridget, Richmond

This will be Father Shuping’s seventh trip to WYD. In the past, he has met people from Germany and Australia who were shocked by the public display of religion, Catholics from the United Arab Emirates who were excited to freely express their faith, a priest from Vietnam whose church had been confiscated by the government, and a woman from China who could only attend church if she reported all that happened back to the government. He has seen young adults from around the world sharing songs, and he has experienced a million people kneeling in silence before the Eucharist. He is looking forward to visiting Lourdes, Santiago de Compostela and Fátima.


John Paul Shanahan, Seminarian

John Paul has always wanted to experience a large gathering of youth in love with the faith. When he emailed Father Brian Capuano, then vicar for vocations, with the idea to send a few seminarians to WYD, he was very excited to be invited himself. To prepare, he has been praying a rosary everyday, specifically for the people who are going to be at WYD and praying for the interactions with Catholics from around the world. He is entrusting himself to Mary, that she will take the trip and do good things that he has never expected.


Dani Liette, Youth Minister at Star of the Sea, Virginia Beach

Last year, Dani went to the Steubenville Atlanta Youth Conference, and came home with a renewed fire in her heart for Jesus and for youth ministry. A few weeks later, she saw a post from the diocese about WYD, and told a roommate that she would love to go on that trip “someday.” A few minutes later, she got a text asking her if she was interested in going. She felt it was a message from God telling her that this was her time to go. To prepare, she has been reading “Fátima for Today” by Father Andrew Apostoli.


Lenina Valle, Community Life Coordinator, Church of the Epiphany, Richmond

Lenina has been to WYD once before, attending the 2011 event in Madrid, Spain, as a member of the Arlington Diocese. Since then, she has taken two mission trips to Uganda, working with children and teachers at a school in the village where her pastor, Father John Kazibwe, grew up. To prepare, she has been reading “Fátima for Today” and watching a video series called “The Faithful Traveler” on Formed.org. In the series, a Catholic couple traveled to Portugal and documented holy sites, historical sites, monasteries and churches they encountered. She has also been praying the Divine Mercy chaplet.


Giovanni Pradelli, Our Lady Queen of Peace, Langley Air Force Base, Hampton

Giovanni, 17, was inspired to go to WYD to share his faith with his peers and visit famous religious sites. It is his first time at WYD, and he is excited to visit many important religious locations throughout Europe. To prepare, he has been praying daily and attending weekly Mass.


Chris Roy, Director, Catholic Campus Ministry, Christopher Newport University

For the past few years, Chris has wanted to travel more, especially to see holy places where God has touched the Earth in a special, intentional way. He has never been to WYD, but he has always wanted to go and see the widest expression of the Church’s members. When he heard that he could go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Santiago and Fátima as part of the diocesan trip to WYD, he knew that he wanted to go. He is looking forward to catechesis talks given each day by the bishops in attendance, and he loves thinking about the bishops as successors to the Twelve Apostles.


Fe Guzman, Youth Minister at St. Mark, Virginia Beach

As a youth minister, it is humbling for Fe to see the growth from the seeds planted in the teens who are now young adults, navigating the challenges of the world on their own and still on fire with their faith. Just as Jesus listened to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus with attention and love, she expects her walk with the young people of the diocese to continue beyond her time with the group. To prepare, she has been reading and reflecting on Pope Francis’ message on WYD last August on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


Editor’s notes:

Bishop Barry C. Knestout shares his thoughts before heading to World Youth Day 2023.

Read about the local pilgrims traveling to World Youth Day with Blue Eagle Ministries.

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