From Rio: Joy in the face of the cross

Yesterday was truly a good Friday in many different respects. We enjoyed a few hours on Copacabana beach in the beautiful Rio sunshine we'd been waiting for all week. While we were getting tossed around in the giant waves and having a blast, I could not help but think to myself, "Is it okay to be swimming and having this much fun on a pilgrimage?" But I quickly reflected on the words of Pope Francis this week: Many times he has mentioned that Catholics should be joyful and not be afraid to share that joy because it is a witness to the Gospel. I think the word "joy" could be one way of summing up this entire World Youth Day in Rio.

After a dip in the Atlantic, we cleaned up and awaited the arrival of Pope Francis to begin the Via Crucis (or Way of the Cross). We said the Divine Mercy chaplet to prepare our hearts for this part of the pilgrimage. After the thrill of Pope Francis driving by us again on Copacabana the Stations began.

Praying Via Crucis

The Stations of the Cross were absolutely magnificent in Rio. The procession was led by an entourage of acolytes incensing the beach. Each station carefully meditated on the reality of Jesus' suffering and how the suffering is incarnate in today's youth through different social and vocational issues.

The Fifth Station compared Simon helping Jesus to a young man struggling to answer the call to priesthood. The Tenth Station compared Jesus being stripped of his clothes to young people being stripped of their identity through an overabundance of social media.

The beach very clearly had at least a million pilgrims, and all were sitting in the sand praying quietly. As I sat and prayed the Stations, I noticed that it is only Jesus that can bring that many people together and create such a sense of peace.

Holiness is messy

After the Stations ended, we decided to head down towards the main stage to get closer for the concert taking place after the pope's departure. It was still very crowded, but it was a bit easier to get closer after Pope Francis made his exit. Up towards the stage, all of the pilgrims, including myself, were having a great time celebrating our faith and singing in every language you could imagine. This quickly changed as a group of masked protesters came rushing the area where we were near the stage.

Luckily, because of my height, I noticed them coming and saw the military police gearing up. I grabbed our girls and plowed through the crowd to get us to safety not knowing what was about to happen. The stage went dark, and the concert ended abruptly. We stayed close to the shoreline to get back to our hotel and away from the street. Once we reached a safe area, we stopped and prayed and reflected that this is the way of the Cross! When so much grace and holiness is being encountered, darkness tries to show its face.

The amazing part of this encounter with protesters was that most of the pilgrims started chanting back, "We are the youth of the pope. We will not leave!" These were the very souls we had been praying for just an hour before they arrived. This is why we have World Youth Day: to bring these very people hope. This is why we will stay and continue our pilgrimage in Rio!

Holiness is messy, as Pope Francis told the Argentine pilgrims earlier this week, but it is totally worth it.

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.