From Rio: ‘The Church is alive! The Church is young!’

"The Church is alive! The Church is young!" is the chant we heard throughout the streets of Rio Tuesday. We started out by heading to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception across from Bogafota Beach. We were hoping to find a catechetical session there, but this was not the case. Instead, we found the tomb of Odette Vidal de Oliveira, whose beatification cause is underway. Odette was a 9-year-old girl who died in 1939. At her tomb we prayed and taught the youth from our group what it means to be a saint. Other than a few Germans and Jamaicans, this location was rather quiet.

This was not the case at the metro station, where we encountered large crowds. We went to the northern part of Rio where the vocations fair is being held. I thought for sure no one would be there because of the location within the city. My American mindset was telling me everyone will want to stay near Copacabana for "safety." I have never been more wrong, and as a World Youth Day veteran I should have known better. The youth of the Church are fearless — that's why they have come to Rio! When you gather a few people who are filled with the Holy Spirit, great things can happen. When you gather millions filled with the Holy Spirit, unbelievable things do happen!

Vocations fair

The vocations fair is being held in a beautiful park. One of my favorite parts of WYD is seeing all of the priests, religious and bishops meandering through the streets and truly listening to the young people. I ran into Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu in the park and he said, "I am just happy to be here with all of these youth celebrating Jesus!" He has been seen all over Rio accompany the youth that he brought from the Hawaiian Islands. This is the reality of what we are witnessing in Rio, the shepherds are among their sheep and tending to their needs.

I also met a Jesuit priest, Father John Gavin of Worcester, Mass., walking around the vocations fair. We began to discuss Pope Francis. When asked what he loved about this first Jesuit pope, Father Gavin responded, "He is an evangelizer; he wants to bring Christ to the people; he wants to show the face of Christ to the world." This seems to be the understanding of many of those we have talked to this week from different countries. I asked Father Gavin what Pope Francis will be remembered for, and he said, "Francis is setting the missionary tone of the Church in the 21st century." I could not have agreed more. "Missionary" has repeatedly come up throughout WYD in different talks from bishops and conversations among the young people in the streets.

Cooling off before Mass

After the fair we headed back to the metro, which was even more crowded than before, and went to Copacabana Beach, the site of the Opening Mass with Archbishop Orani Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro. Upon arrival at the beach we were overwhelmed by the amount of people and the excitement on the beach. There were 26 megatron screens dotting the entire length of the beach. Unlike past World Youth Days, the pilgrims were able to cool off as they waded in the water. In fact, we jumped in too! The waves in Rio are of epic proportions, but it was such a fun way to wait for the Opening Mass.

After we got out of the water and dried off, I saw people on the stage and asked myself, "What do a South African, Argentinian, Swiss, Australian and Chinese young person all have in common?" The answer is they love the Blessed Mother, and so they led the missionary Rosary for the crowd before Mass began. This was a very cool moment as some our young people commented, "Mary really is queen of heaven and all earth!"

Heavenly moment

Mass began soon after, and it was very easy for us to follow along with the liturgy guide that was provided in our pilgrim pack. Mass was stunning as it is only Jesus that can quiet a crowd of a million on Copacabana Beach. The Mass had a youthful sense but the sacred was not lost as the Gospel and many other parts of the Mass were chanted.

Perhaps the most breathtaking part of Mass was after Communion, when a young woman sang the Panis Angelicus. As we were windblown and wet from the falling mist of the weather and the waves, it was the most serene and peaceful I have ever felt in a crowd that big. As I looked out over the entire beach, which is internationally known as a place of partying, scantily-clad beach bums, it was as if heaven had gently come down and reclaimed the entire place. "The angelic bread becomes the bread of men; The heavenly bread ends all prefigurations: What wonder! The Lord is eaten by a poor and humble servant."

I cannot think of a better song to describe the spirit of what is taking place among the young people this week in Rio.

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.