LISBON, Portugal (OSV News) — Selia Nunez celebrated her 16th birthday two weeks ago, and now she is in Lisbon, enjoying her first World Youth Day. “I just made the cut,” she said. It was her grandparents who wanted her to come to WYD, and she traveled with five other young people from her parish, St. Michael Catholic Church, in Plymouth, Indiana.
“Just seeing the whole world come together to celebrate one thing is almost overwhelming, but in a good way,” she said.
Nunez is keeping a log of the trip, and she already has a notebook full of notes to share with her youth community back home.
“I’ve been writing down everything that happens,” she told OSV News. “So I don’t miss anything.”
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend is one of the largest diocesan groups from the United States traveling to WYD, bringing 272 youth accompanied by two dozen priests, and led by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.
“They are excited, they are joyful, and they’re spending time (in) prayer and also meeting young people from around the world. So it’s really been a wonderful first several days here,” Bishops Rhoades told OSV News, standing on top of the steps leading to the Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation in central Lisbon, with the yellow trams pictured in every Lisbon postcard passing by.
It’s the fifth WYD for Bishop Rhoades, who attended in Sydney, Madrid, Krakow and Panama, but this time, the diocesan group hit record-high participation, doubling the number of attendees from previous pilgrimages.
“I was able to provide a significant amount of financial aid because of the generosity of donors,” Bishop Rhoades said, underlining that he is promoting the event in the diocese “because I see the fruits.”
“It’s an experience that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. And I’ve seen a lot of young peoples’ faith really be deepened and strengthened by being here, because they see young Catholics from around the world who are also strong in their faith, and that encourages them,” he said.
“And there’s such a joyful spirit with the music and beautiful liturgy … and then just walking together, getting to know each other. I think it is very impactful,” Bishop Rhoades added.
The group went to Fatima on July 30-31 to visit the sanctuary where a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary began on May 13, 1917.
Nunez decided to do a pilgrimage on her knees around the chapel with the famed statue of Our Lady of Fatima, one that carries one of the bullets from St. John Paul II’s 1981 assassination attempt in her crown.
“It was amazing … almost life-changing,” she said. “It really brought me closer to my faith. I was almost connected with Jesus in that moment, because I could feel that I was giving that up as a sacrifice to him for his sacrifice he gave to us,” she said.
Bishop Rhoades added that now, after visiting the famous shrine, he understands the message of Our Lady of Fatima much better.
“The time I spent there being able to be at the chapel of the apparitions, the homes of the children, and just having time to pray and to pray the rosary — which Our Lady asked of us, to pray the rosary every day. All of that combined to make the beginning of this pilgrimage really perfect for me personally,” Bishop Rhoades said.
Karen Pantoja, a 19-year-old from Fort Wayne, had heard about Fatima since her childhood years and had always wanted to come, as she was inspired by the three children to whom Mary appeared.
“They were brave enough to stand (for) their faith. And I just thought, that’s so beautiful,” she told OSV News. “Being in the place where the Virgin Mary appeared was really powerful. I felt a sense of peace.”
Bishop Rhoades added with a smile that, when he was traveling to Lisbon, he told the youth he had always felt closer to Our Lady Guadalupe and Our Lady of Lourdes, “and one of the teenage boys said: ‘Bishop, it’s the same woman!'”
For Nic Mickley, a 20-year-old Purdue University student from Huntington, Indiana, WYD in Lisbon is an “amazing opportunity” to “see more about the faith and see the pope.”
“It’s something that you can’t really imagine. I mean, you can hardly explain it. All the people and the different cultures, you know — the faith is so strong here,” he told OSV News right before entering a catechesis session for his group on Aug. 2.
Mickley is also a fan of Lisbon and its architectural treasures.
“I love all the different styles of churches. They’re all so beautiful,” he said.
Pantoja also loves the sightseeing part of WYD, but it’s the shared faith experience that really struck her during the opening Mass on Aug. 1.
“It was powerful. It was different. It really brought my faith, seeing how many people believe in the same thing … and definitely eye opening,” she told OSV News.
Bishop Rhoades said that “families that are active and attend Mass, pray together in the home” are the primary source of strong Catholic communities in his diocese, and the fruit of those strong families is what has led to such a large group at WYD.
“That’s the seed really for these young people and their growth in the faith. Then I would say next would be the parishes and schools,” he said.
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend has 147,996 registered Catholics, 81 parishes and 43 Catholic schools. For Bishop Rhoades, meeting his diocesan youth is a refreshing experience.
“They are fresh in our faith. You know, sometimes as bishops, we deal with a lot of issues and problems, and it can be pretty heavy, the responsibility. So, for me, it’s so refreshing to just be here with these young people,” he said.
For Mickley, WYD is an experience he’ll never forget. “Just amazing stories. I’ll definitely be telling these for the rest of my life.”
Pantoja hopes to “share my peace and the grace that I’ve received here with my family and friends. And I hope to pass on the power and the energy that I’ve received here,” she said.
“Something that World Youth Day has taught me is that every day is an adventure and everything is going to be fine at the end of the day because during our pilgrimage of walking, we sometimes get lost,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we find the location, and we find our family. Brothers and sisters.”
Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.