Difficulties accent experience
World Youth Day includes the holy, the fun and the trying all in one
By Kathy Berken
ROME - If it weren't for the bed bugs, sunburn, dehydration,
blisters, sore legs and backs, lack of sleep, 100-plus
temperatures, dust, short tempers, sweat and lack of
experience in a foreign country, the 11 days of World Youth
Day just wouldn't have been as much fun.
I was with 24 young adults from the Green Bay Diocese who
came to this 2,753-year-old city with 1.5 million pilgrims
for the 15th World Youth Day, which Pope John Paul hosted to
encourage the world's youth to live their faith and pass it
When 700,000 of us packed into St. Peter's Square on opening
night, after waiting three hours in the hot sun, we ended up
close enough to the barricade to see the pope as he rode by.
"There he is! Did you see him?!" echoed most of our group.
During the pope's address, he asked who we really came to
Rome to see. Someone yelled out, "Christo!" Yet we knew that
the pope was the main attraction for many.
We came as both pilgrims and tourists. It seemed we spent
most of our time walking - about five miles a day - waiting,
and drinking gallons of water, which kept us alive - and
We walked and waited for three hours to see St. Peter's only
to be rushed like cattle through the largest church in the
world. "Avanti! Avanti!"("Move on!") the guards kept saying
- refusing to let anyone stop for even a second - so on the
run we snapped pictures of Michaelangelo's Pieta and di
Cambio's bronze statue of St. Peter and Bernini's 10-story
canopy over the altar.
We waited another three hours to get into the Sistine Chapel
and then could stay only a few minutes staring at the
ceiling, disbelieving that we were here, while wondering how
Michelangelo painted all of it.
It was great that Bp. Robert Morneau met us for the week,
and even better that he celebrated Mass with us twice and
showed us around the North American College, a seminary for
But the best part of the pilgrimage was seeing how God was
alive here. I watched a man push someone in a wheelchair up
a narrow, steep and crowded cobblestone street on a
100-degree day. A woman walked up and without saying a word,
she helped push. He looked over, smiled and said, "Grazie."
I learned that people packed their integrity and their
weaknesses along with their sunscreen and water bottles. Two
young people walked across a street near the Spanish Steps,
already littered with garbage, to place their apple cores in
an overfull trash can.
I also learned that a little kindness goes a long way. Pam
Marsh, religious ed coordinator at St. Joseph in Sturgeon
Bay, gave me a square of moleskin which cut my foot blister
pain by half.
Mike Golden, a group leader from St. Raphael in Oshkosh sat
on college football tackle Marshall Paschke's shoulders with
his video camera on opening night to tape the pope. Golden
said he couldn't stop shaking. "I was so excited. I want to
be like (the pope). I want to share my life like that."
Ellen Mommaerts, a group leader from St. Agnes Parish in
Green Bay, was at her third World Youth Day. She said she
will continue to go because the experiences have changed her
life. It "helps you dig deeper and hunger and thirst for God
in new ways," she said.
Kristin Wild of St. Raphael told a few hundred pilgrims at
our catechetical session "not to binge on God" only to
forget him when this is over. Instead, she said, "carry God
with you all the time."
Dan Maul of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, De Pere, said he
expected to be "blown away by St. Peter's or the frescoes,"
but instead he found God in our little band of 25. He hopes
to become a Norbertine priest and said the trip affirmed his
vocation. "Everything we needed for life we found here -
patience, compassion, forgiveness."
Tracy Ertl of Nativity Parish, Ashwaubenon, said the trip
gave her a stronger faith, a new group of friends and a
feeling of belonging.
She said when she and the 2.1 million other pilgrims lit
their candles at a vigil Mass with the pope, "it was like
the whole world was lit up."
(Berken, former marketing manager for The Compass, is on the
staff of The Arch, a L'Arche community in Clinton, Iowa.)