Pilgrimage of prayer with pope thrills youngsters Denver rites termed overwhelming


They didn't meet Pope John Paul II personally, but just being in his presence for about seven hours was enough of a spiritual experience to last them a lifetime.

And praying together with hundreds of thousands of people from around the world certainly strengthened their faith, says a group of Harford County young pilgrims who participated in World Youth Day activities in Denver.

"It was overwhelming to be part of such a large group," said Matthew Behrens, 18, who was with a nine-member contingent from St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in Hickory that traveled to Colorado to hear the pope. "I never thought that so many young people could get together in one spot and pray."

Remembering the sea of faces during the vigil Aug. 14 and last Sunday's papal Mass still fills Rachel Knauer with emotion.

"Looking around, you just knew you were part of something bigger," said Ms. Knauer, youth minister at St. Ignatius and leader of the contingent. "The evening of the vigil was the first time we actually saw the Holy Father. And, seeing all these people gathered together filled us with God's spirit.

"It was just awesome. There were no language, ethnic or age barriers, we were all there for the same reason -- to share our faith in God," Ms. Knauer said.

The St. Ignatius group, as well as a group from St. Margaret's in Bel Air and St. Joan of Arc in Aberdeen, flew to Colorado Aug. 10 and returned Monday. About 400 young people and chaperons represented the Baltimore Archdiocese at the celebrations.

Planning for the trip began about a year ago, said Ms. Knauer. With the support of the St. Ignatius congregation, the church's youth group sponsored fund-raising events to subsidize the excursion.

They raised $5,000, enough to pay half of each participant's $700 expenses and still leave some money for other church projects.

The trip was anything but a vacation -- it was a true pilgrimage, said Bonnie Ng, who, along with her son, Jonathon, accompanied the St. Ignatius group.

"It was a pilgrimage of prayer and sacrifice," said Mrs. Ng. "We suffered heat, thirst, fatigue -- we united ourselves with Christ and his suffering on the way to Calvary and we united ourselves with people suffering around the world today."

Standing in line in bright sunshine for more than two hours just to get a drink of water or use the bathroom was frustrating for Kerry Zeller, 15, but it also made her aware of how much she takes the conveniences of home for granted.

"Here we were a little inconvenienced for a week, while others suffer all their life," said Kerry.

She thought about people in other parts of the world who have to stand in line for hours each day in the hope of being able to buy just a loaf of bread or get a handout.

"I knew that after a week I would be back in the comforts of my own home, sleeping in my own bed -- but there are others whose suffering never ends," she said.

The sense of belonging to a moral movement with thousands of others -- estimates of the crowd ranged from 375,000 to 500,000 -- had a powerful impact on the Harford pilgrims.

"There was definitely cultural diversity," said Neil Bittner, 26, an adult leader for the St. Ignatius youth group. "But nobody cared who was beside them, we all joined hands and prayed together. . . ."

Added Jonathon Ng, 14, "It was a great example of how we should be with one another -- in complete peace, showing the rest of the world how easy it is to live together and love one another."

Living in peace and respecting life are two of John Paul's messages the young pilgrims hope to share with their friends.

"He told us that life is a gift from God, it's sacred and should be well taken care of," said Ms. Knauer.

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