SAN DIEGO — Think “Coachella meets St. Peter’s Square.”
That’s how one participant from the Diocese of San Diego described World Youth Day, where hundreds of thousands are expected to join Pope Francis in Lisbon, Portugal, from Aug. 1 to 6.
The diocesan Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry will be leading its own delegation of 25 young adults. It will be led by the office’s director, Maricruz Flores, and one of its associate directors, Brilema Perez.
The other associate director, Evelyn Beale, who joined the office’s staff in early June, will also be attending World Youth Day, but as a member of an international group sponsored by Bon Secours Young Adults and Maryknoll Young Adults.
Various local parishes will be sending their own groups of pilgrims, including Santa Sophia Parish in Spring Valley, with a group of 35; St. James Parish in Solana Beach and its St. Leo Mission with 15 and 22, respectively; St. Patrick Parish in Carlsbad, with 16; and St. Pius X Parish in Chula Vista with six.
St. Augustine High School will have a 40-member delegation, and the University of San Diego will be sending a group of 11.
Cardinal Robert W. McElroy will also be heading to Lisbon, where he will celebrate Mass on Wednesday, Aug. 2, for pilgrims from his diocese.
Before their departure, all San Diego-area pilgrims are invited to a “Commissioning Mass” celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Ramón Bejarano. About 150 people are expected to attend the Mass, which will be celebrated at 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 25, in the diocesan Pastoral Center’s chapel. A reception will follow.
In addition to World Youth Day’s packed schedule of Masses, catechesis, talks, devotions, and events with the pope, participating groups will personalize their trips. For example, both the diocesan and USD groups will be visiting the Marian apparition site at Fatima; pilgrims from St. Augustine High School will attend the Augustinian Youth Encounter, held in Lisbon the week before World Youth Day, and extend their trip with two nights in Madrid; and the St. Patrick Parish group, which will be traveling with the St. James-St. Leo group, will be in France just prior to World Youth Day.
Started by Pope St. John Paul II in 1985, World Youth Day is a pilgrimage experience for Catholics ages 16 to 35, which is held every two or three years in a different city around the world. The most recent World Youth Day was held in Panama City, Panama, in 2019. It has been held once in the United States, in 1993 in Denver, Colo.
This year’s theme is “Mary arose and went with haste (Luke 1:39),” a reference to the Blessed Mother’s response after learning from the Archangel Gabriel that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant.
Cony Garcia, a 28-year-old member of St. Anne Parish, is “full of excitement and peace” as she prepares to attend World Youth Day for the first time this year as part of the diocesan delegation.
“What I find attractive about attending (World Youth Day) is the large number of youth from many parts of the world that will be attending,” she said. “It is a reminder that our faith is alive.”
“I am hoping to increase my love for God and learn more about my faith,” she said. “Also, since I am discerning my vocation, hopefully I will be able to find answers about what God wants from me.”
Alina Ramirez, a 21-year-old member of Resurrection Parish in Escondido, is another first-time World Youth Day participant who has signed up with the diocesan delegation.
Like Garcia, she also greets with anticipation “the opportunity to meet people from all over the world who share the same faith as me.”
“I look forward to connecting with others and hearing their experiences with their faith,” she said. “I love learning new things and experiencing different cultures. It is beautiful to see the diversity, and yet the unity of the Catholic Church.”
Ramirez said she is spiritually preparing for the trip by offering small sacrifices and setting aside time for daily prayer.
“I have been praying particularly for my fellow pilgrims, including those I have yet to meet, for Pope Francis, and for the bishops participating,” she said.
Perez, who attended World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011 with a group from St. Rose of Lima Parish in Chula Vista, said the leaders of the diocesan delegation have told their pilgrims that World Youth Day is a true pilgrimage, not “a luxurious trip.” She said the pilgrims have been warned to be ready for some “tough moments,” including the physical exertion of walking long distances amid summer heat and finding themselves packed in crowds of thousands.
As part of their preparation, members of the diocesan delegation attended a day of recollection in early April at Mission San Luis Rey Parish in Oceanside and participated in the third annual SD Catholic Pilgrimage Walk, an over 7-mile roundtrip walk from Mission San Luis Rey to Prince of Peace Abbey, which began with a prayer service and included Mass at the abbey.
Perez explained that the latter event served as “both a physical … and a spiritual preparation” for World Youth Day.
Flores echoed that sentiment, noting that World Youth Day pilgrims will be “really tested, not only in your faith, but how long your feet are going to last,” but the experience will provide a strong reminder that “we’re not alone”: “We have brothers and sisters in Christ that are … literally walking with us.”
The World Youth Day in Lisbon will be the first for Jocelyn Tejeda, a youth minister at St. Patrick Parish in Carlsbad, who will lead her parish’s group.
The 28-year-old Tejeda said she is making “a mental countdown” as the date of her group’s departure draws near, and she feels “rushed with adrenaline, thinking of the great adventure the Lord has in store for us.”
“Attending World Youth Day is an opportunity for myself, alongside the youth participants of my parish, to see ourselves represented in a Church that encourages us to share our talents, strengths and ideas,” she said. “I am excited to grow more in my own faith, and come back home to my parish and share about my faith experiences, hopefully encouraging other youth to attend future World Youth Days.”
She hopes that her group’s youth, as well as their adult chaperones, will return home from the experience with “a sense of renewed purpose.”
For Alec Hartman, associate university minister in USD’s University Ministry department, who will be leading a group of 10 undergraduate students, this will be his first time attending what friends and colleagues have told him is “a life-changing experience.”
The group of pilgrims from USD has been meeting throughout the spring semester to prepare.
Among other things, Hartman said, group members have shared their faith journeys and reflected together on “what it means to be a young person in the Church, and how we might approach World Youth Day with a pilgrim’s disposition rather than as a tourist.”
“My hope for myself and for our group attending World Youth Day, is to experience a connection to our global, Universal Church through gathering and praying with young Catholics from around the world,” he said. “During the times of COVID, it was often difficult to feel connected to the Local Church, let alone global, so there’s a collective yearning for that sense of connection.”
He added, “I hope the spiritual impact for our group will be a reminder that, as young people, we aren’t alone in our desire to seek Christ and aspiration of deepening our faith lives. I hope that each member of our group will experience their faith in a way that inspires them to live it out wherever their journey might take them.”
Augustinian Father Maxime Villeneuve, chaplain at St. Augustine High School, is a five-time veteran of World Youth Day, including four previous times leading a group from the school. Those experiences have left him with indelible memories.
“I will never forget cheering and praying through the storm that hit Madrid with Pope Benedict, the beauty of Mass on Copacabana Beach, or singing ‘Jesus Christ, You Are My Life’ in Krakow,” he recalled.
Father Villeneuve will be taking another group of St. Augustine High School students this August. Their departure will be preceded by a “pilgrim’s blessing and Mass” on Saturday, July 22, on campus. Members of the school’s World Youth Day delegation and their families are invited to attend.
“We are very excited to attend (World Youth Day) and provide an amazing faith-filled experience for Saintsmen,” said Father Villeneuve. “The scale of the event is unlike any other event that you can attend. It’s ‘Coachella meets St. Peter’s Square.’ It is vibrant and joyful.”
He added, “Being with the Holy Father, in union with people from all over the world, is truly moving. Seeing all the flags and places that people come from makes a huge impact: The Church is truly Catholic (meaning ‘universal’).”
Fabian O. Castillo, 16, is among the students that Father Villeneuve will be leading.
He said, “I hope this pilgrimage helps me encounter Jesus, to learn more about my spiritual journey, to incentivize me, and strengthen me in continuing to answer the call God has for me in serving Him by serving others and live a more Jesus-like life.”
For those who missed out on signing up for this year’s World Youth Day, the Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry hopes that the group it put together for World Youth Day represents only the first of many such opportunities.
Perez said, “We’re hoping that maybe this will open up doors for more pilgrimages.”