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A religious experience

Area teens, adults travel to Canada for ninth World Youth Day

Christina M. Currie

Nearly 1 million people gathered in Toronto, Canada, for a religious experience, and 39 people, mostly teens, from Craig, Meeker and Rangely were there.

And each returned changed.

“It got me into the church more than I was,” eighth grader David Miller said. “Seeing all the youth together and not fighting. There was like this peace for awhile.”

The group from the three-community parish of St. Michael’s Catholic Church left for the ninth World Youth Day July 21 and returned July 30.

The days in between were filled with activities and religious study with teens from every country in the world. Each raised their flag in celebration as they walked down the streets of Toronto during the welcoming ceremony.

Pope John Paul II chose the event’s theme, taken from the book of Matthew, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world,” and his attendance, despite his ill health, lives in the memories of those who attended.

“He was kind of the draw of the session, other than God, that is,” said Father Ernest Bayer, one of the chaperones for the Northwest Colorado contingent.

The four youth who gathered Thursday to talk about the experience said hearing the Pope speak was the highlight of the experience.

“He gave a speech in every language he knew,” said the energetic and talkative sophomore Amelia Parker. “It was awesome. He’s fluent in like nine languages. I don’t think I’ll ever forget. The whole experience was awesome.”

People from Craig, Meeker and Rangely were split into groups of twos and threes to stay with host families. They rose each morning and trekked across Toronto to events and religious discussions wearing yellow, olive green and black camouflage-patterned safari hats. The hats were unique to the group so they could be easily identified in a crowd.

The highlight of the celebration was an evening under the stars that started with a six-mile hike.

“Everywhere you go, everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s just 20 minutes,'” junior Mary Beth Buchanan said.

More than 800,000 people gathered in a large, open field that had once been an Air Force base where participants camped in the open, at times in the rain, to hear Pope John Paul lead the morning Mass.

“We ended up wrapped in our sleeping bags during the rain,” Buchanan said.

That night, the field was lit by hundreds of thousands of candles in a three-hour ceremony meant to reiterate the point: You are the light of the world.

The Northwest Colorado group was set up too far from the stage to see Pope John Paul, but a huge screen displayed his actions live.

“‘Be instruments of peace’ was one of the main messages from the Pope,” Bayer said. “He was basically preaching to the youth of the world that it’s up to them to bring love and peace to the world.”

To keep track of the group, helium-filled balloons of yellow, green and black flew above their campsite and could be seen across the entire clearing.

“It was an amazing experience,” Parker said. “There were no fights or brawls or anything. We were all there for one reason and that was God.”

God was evident in all they did, she said. Particularly the morning of Mass when rain and wind looked to dampen the event, but as soon as the Pope stepped up to the stage, the sky cleared.

“That was God, I tell you,” Parker said.

As if to punctuate his words, when the Pope said, “Young people, be strong,” lightening flashed and thunder boomed, Bayer said.

“I think God strengthened him to come to this and change the world through the youth,” Parker said.

People from every country in the world attended the event, which only takes place once every two years.

“No matter where you went, there was someone from a different country,” Parker said. “I liked to go up and ask where they were from.”

People didn’t just speak different languages. They constantly sang in them, she said.

There was singing nearly everywhere the teens went on the bus, on the subway and on the train.

“We spent more time on the subway and bus on that trip than we probably ever will again in our lives,” Miller said.

The group got the chance to take advantage of nearly every form of transportation available van, car, train, bus, boat, subway and plane.

While in Toronto, the teens also got the chance to play tourists. They visited Niagara Falls, a huge mall and an amusement park.

“The boat goes right up to the falls, so you get totally drenched,” Parker said.

“I don’t know how anyone could look at Niagara Falls and not believe there’s a God,” Buchanan said.

Part of the entertainment included religious talks, concerts and plays in the street.

“We waited for three hours for a front row seat,” Miller said about a professional performance of the Stations of the Cross. “But it was worth it.”

Bayer said the youth had hundreds of activities from which to chose.

Junior Stephanie Braselton went to a French play to hear the language she’s spent three years studying.

“I used my French a lot there,” she said.

The trip was fun, but the lessons learned will last a lifetime, members of the group said.

“Pilgrims,” Bayer said. “We were pilgrims on a journey.”

Parker said she met a man from Afghanistan from whom she learned war doesn’t touch, or always influence, everyone.

“There’s a lot of unity within the church, even with a country we’re at war with,” she said.

Junior Kassie Dilldine said she learned that no matter what your surroundings are, God is still in your heart and you can worship him wherever you are.

And they did that in a lot of places, Bayer said. It’s difficult to chaperone teens surrounded by millions of people and hundreds of activities.

“It was a lot of prayer, I must say,” he said. “When we broke into groups, it was ‘God, keep them close, keep them together. This is your party, you’ve got to be in control because I’m not.’ There were a lot of stressful moments.”

Perhaps none were more stressful than waiting for a bus to their plane that arrived two hours late. The group arrived at the airport 30 minutes before their plane was scheduled to leave and were rushed though customs to make it.

A World Youth Day has been held every other year since 1984. More than 4 million people attended the 1995 World Youth Day held in Manila. It was the largest human gathering in any country at any time.

In 2005, it will be held in Germany and several students are already making plans to attend.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.


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