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Catholics gather to celebrate World Youth Day

Mel Flanagan | Monday, September 5, 2011

For several Notre Dame students and faculty members, World Youth Day 2011 was a chance to unite with 1.5 million other Catholic youths — a reminder of the strength of the Catholic community.

“One of the things we believe as Catholics is we are united in the body of Christ, but we rarely get to experience that,” Rev. Andrew Gawrych, C.S.C., Associate Director of the Office of Vocations, said. “To be there with people from all over the world is this tangible experience, the fact that we really are not alone.”

World Youth Day 2011, a week-long celebration of the Catholic faith with religious individuals from around the world, lasted from Aug. 16 to 21 in Madrid and included the participation of Pope Benedict XVI.

After attending World Youth Day three times as a pilgrim, Gawrych returned to this summer’s event for the first time as a priest.

“World Youth Day is a big part of my spiritual journey. It was at World Youth Day that I really accepted the Catholic faith as my own,” he said. “It’s so inspiring to be in crowds of 1.5 million young people who are Catholic and love Christ and are trying to follow Him.”

Gawrych said World Youth Day impacted him in the same way it did when he was a pilgrim.

“I still came back completely fired up, completely energized to try to do my best to serve Christ and to bring his message of hope to the world,” he said.

Junior Mary Wheaton was already studying abroad in Angers, France, but she met up with the group traveling from the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend.

“A friend of mine from Ireland went to World Youth Day in Sydney and raved about it,” Wheaton said. “I’ve known for three years that I wanted to go to Madrid, and started my planning a year and a half ago to make it happen.”

Wheaton said that while she attended all of the organized events, including concerts, talks and masses, the most memorable was the Stations of the Cross held in the streets of Madrid.

“The way they organized it with religious art from all over Spain and the carrying of the World Youth Day cross by different groups of youths who have been affected by various hardships was beautiful,” she said.

Gawrych said the Love and Life Centre where he worked was the largest home for English-speaking pilgrims, hosting about 80,000 individuals throughout the week.

He said his favorite event of the week was the final mass with the Holy Father, which took place outdoors on the runways of an airport that was shut down for the weekend.

“It starts Saturday night with a vigil and a prayer service, and the young people stay out there overnight, and in the morning there’s a big mass,” he said.

Although she thought the planners were slightly disorganized in terms of planning the events, Wheaton agreed that the experience was a memorable one, and she would consider going to World Youth Day again in the future.

“I had many good memories and met a lot of amazing people,” she said. “It really is something I would recommend.”