From Rio: Finding the World Youth Day spirit

"Go and Make Disciples of All Nations." This is the commission Christ gave the apostles 2,000 years ago in the Gospel of Matthew, and the fruits of those courageous 12 were magnified Monday in Rio de Janeiro!

My group arrived in Rio on Monday at about 5:30 a.m. local time, and we have not stopped since we stepped foot off the plane. The drive from the airport was, quite frankly, what you’d expect to see in Rio — many favelas or shanty towns. The poverty struck me in the first 30 minutes of our drive toward downtown Rio. Having been to the four previous World Youth Days, I started to get a little bit unsure of how the Church was going to pull off this event. It didn't take long to figure out the hospitality and the spirit of the Brazilians is how Rio 2013 is going to go down in history as one of the best.

The spirit of Rio

Our morning guide, Marci, is very proud of her country and even more excited that they are hosting WYD. She mentioned that the country as a whole is ready and ecstatic for this event far more than the World Cup soccer tournament due to take place in 2014. I realized what she meant as our bus got stuck at a stoplight.

A motorcade raced into the intersection with Vatican flags on every vehicle to halt traffic. Being the WYD pilgrims that we are, we were dreaming that maybe Pope Francis' plane had landed early and we were about to catch a glimpse. Instead, the WYD cross and icon of Our Lady sped through in their own personal motorcade decorated with all the pomp appropriate for the signs of our savior and his mother. It was amazing to see the reverence Brazilians have for this pilgrimage and visit of Pope Francis.

'We are the youth of the pope!'

After seeing a few sites around town, we headed to St. Jude's parish, where we were able to have Mass with Bishop David Walker of Broken Bay, Australia. This is one of my favorite characteristics of WYD: celebrating Mass with Catholics from any corner of the globe that you can imagine!

After Mass, we crossed the street and boarded the tram up to Corcovado. This is the hill that the famous Christ the Redeemer statue sits on overlooking all of Rio. The tramcars were filled with pilgrims singing and chanting about where they come from and why they are here in Rio. One of the most common chants heard in different languages translates to, "We are the youth of the pope!" It is such a powerful experience to see young people professing their joy to be a part of the Catholic Church.

At the summit of Corcovado we had the great privilege of seeing the Christ the Redeemer statue, which is overwhelming to say the least. The Brazilians have taken great pride in this national symbol and keep it very well preserved. It is much bigger than any photo I have ever seen of it. I tried to capture its size in photos, but it simply does not do it justice.

Pastors’ hearts

While on the summit of Corcovado, we saw many bishops from around the world walking among the youth. They did not seek special treatment, but rather were enduring the heat and enjoying the energy of the crowd. It reminded me that our shepherds really do care about the well-being of the Church.

After coming down off the mountaintop, we checked into our hotel and took a little break from all the travel excitement. About an hour after we arrived at the hotel, the chanting, screaming, honking and celebration increased tenfold outside my window. I realized that Pope Francis was now in Brazil and moving about the city.

It was incredible to see his lack of concern when it came to security detail. Pope Francis truly is a pastor at heart who desires to be as close to his people as possible. Many pilgrims got close enough to reach into the pope’s vehicle as it weaved through downtown Rio traffic. After seeing the reaction to Pope Francis on Monday, we are pumped to see what the rest of the week will bring.

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.