For 10 days this summer, even as the daytime temperature soared past 100 degrees without fail, 1.5 million of the world’s young Catholics descended upon Madrid to share their faith in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI and each other, during World Youth Day 2011. Among them were five Rider students and the University’s Catholic Campus Ministry chaplain, Father Joseph Jakub.
“It’s really a cultural and spiritual pilgrimage,” said Jakub of World Youth Day, a worldwide communion of Roman Catholics from every corner of the globe that happens every three years. “There are all sorts of cultural programs celebrating the various nations present and a tremendous gathering of the world’s bishops, but the main thrust of the event is really a pilgrimage.”
Jakub, who has served as Rider’s Catholic Chaplain since 2009, was a first-time attendee at World Youth Day, celebrated every two or three years at locations spanning the globe. The next such event will be hosted by Rio de Janeiro in 2013; the United States last hosted World Youth Day in 1993. Jakub said that the event holds great appeal for young Catholics in that it provides participants an idea of the church’s universality and scale, assuring them that they are not alone or isolated in their quest to know Jesus.
“You really see the youth of the entire world,” explained of Jakub of World Youth Day, whose attendance this year surpassed the total population of as many as 11 of the United States. “It’s so unparalleled.”
The five Rider students were part of a larger group representing the Diocese of Trenton totaling 27 people, including some from other local colleges and universities. In addition to Jakub, the Rider contingent included Eleanor Ojinnaka ’14, Matthew Marzorati ’14, Grace Johnson ’13 and Alissa Bunty ’11, recipient of Rider’s John Kostic Catholic Leadership Award. Former student Andrew Dyden, who has since transferred, also made the pilgrimage with his friends from Rider.
World Youth Day presented the students a chance to earn varied cultural perspectives and display national pride as well, while building bridges of friendship with their brethren from other lands.
“I remember meeting people from North Korea, South Africa, the British Islands and Canada,” said Ojinnaka, whose family hails originally from Nigeria. “We would trade trinkets and glasses – I got a mini Bible keychain – and even a small Nigerian flag.”
“Anything from your country made for good trading,” Jakub said.
Still, the students clearly made the journey for reasons of faith, according to Marzorati. “Trading things was fun, but I wasn’t really concerned with it. I had much more of a spiritual concern, trying to find the Holy Spirit.”
Jakub said that while the multitude of languages spoken at World Youth Day posed some challenges, the group benefited from Bunty’s fluent Spanish, which gave them access to many Spaniards and Spanish offerings. Otherwise, a great deal could be communicated simply through facial and hand gestures, as well as an understanding of their common purpose.
“We’re all there for the same reason,” he said. “Regardless of where we came from, we all love Jesus.”
Ojinnaka agreed, saying the palpable feeling of commonality was inspiring. “The energy was so beautiful. Groups of people would start chants or cheers for other groups they could identify – a group from Texas got a ‘U-S-A! chant started,” she said. “One day, there were a couple of nuns standing on a platform at the train station, and a large group of us were on the other said of the tracks. We all started cheering for them, and I think they were surprised. They just started bowing to us!”
World Youth Day culminated with a prayer vigil, attended by hundreds of thousands, led by the Pope at Cuatro Vientos. Almost as if for dramatic effect, a suddenly fierce wind carried in strong rains as the Pontiff urged the young communicants to fear neither the world, nor its future.
“I invite you to ask God to help you find your vocation in society and in the Church, and to persevere in it joyfully and faithfully,” the Pope said. “It is worthwhile accepting the call of Christ and bravely and generously following the path that He proposes for you.”
Jakub said Benedict XVI’s words were well-considered by the young people there.
“It was a very reassuring message for young Catholics,” he said.