Saturday night's papal vigil on Copacabana beach was overwhelming in all the right ways. The night began with Pope Francis taking his third ride down the beach in the popemobile, giving more and more pilgrims the opportunity to see him, but more importantly for him to see the pilgrims. This man we call Francis really is the most joyful when he is among his people.
Pope of the whole Church
We were on the front of the barrier waiting for his arrival again. This time two girls, sisters, from Buenos Aires showed up about an hour before the arrival of Pope Francis, and they were standing behind me. Then it happened: I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I knew what they were going to ask. I am so tall, and they were so short that it was no surprise they would ask to stand in front of me.
Now this may seem like an easy decision, but in a crowd like that it is very difficult to see anything, even for me, unless you are on the front lines. I tried to conveniently not understand their English. But as time pressed on, I realized these girls were from Buenos Aires, and they had in some ways given the Church our pope. I told them to get in front of me at the last minute as long as they promised to pray for me.
The girls were elated and very grateful. We became “amigos” in the few minutes we waited. I told them they deserve to see "their pope" as close as possible, and they both quickly corrected me, "He is OUR pope. The pope of the whole Church." One of the girls told me that they had been praying someone would help them see the pope, and I was humbled to be that person.
After Pope Francis passed by and blessed us up close and personal, we headed further down Copacabana. It was impossible to find a place on the beach or on the street that runs parallel. We pushed our way through to a hotel close to the stage. Our travel guide, Chris Dube, had a room on the seventh floor and invited us to watch from above. This was an absolute treat and a once-in-a-lifetime experience at World Youth Day. When we walked onto the balcony, we were overwhelmed and gasped at just how large the crowd was that had taken over Copacabana. There were people as far as the eye could see down the beach.
The call to be 'campus fidei'
We watched and listened to the Pope Francis as he told us we are a field of faith or "campus fidei," which allows seeds of faith to be sown. As he talked, we felt as if he were talking to each one of us personally. He spoke with passion and conviction that are reminiscent of the earliest World Youth Days with Pope John Paul II. At one point as I listened to the translation, I turned to our priest and said, "He is reclaiming South America! He is reclaiming the Church!" It felt as if we were witness to a very historical moment and the effects will be seen in the coming years. It was powerful.
Next, Pope Francis led us in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and people were kneeling as far as 2.5 miles away. We knelt in prayer even in the balcony. An incredible moment happened when singer and songwriter, Matt Maher, of Nashville, Tenn., came out and knelt behind Pope Francis and sang his new song, "Lord, I Need You." It was absolutely the perfect song to lead the pilgrims and the pope at that moment.
Pope Francis gave us benediction and thus ended the most unforgettable vigil and adoration experience I have ever had! Three million young people showed their faith in one of the most unlikely locations on earth. It begs the question: What are the rest of us doing as Church to be a witness?
Stephen Lenahan is the director of youth ministry at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, Ga., and is blogging for Our Sunday Visitor from Rio throughout World Youth Day.