Strong sense of unity fills World Youth Day pilgrims

In the universal church and in the Archdiocese of Omaha, the message of unity echoes loud and clear.

The local church mixed into the global one at the 15th international celebration of World Youth Day Jan. 22-27 in Panama City, where Pope Francis spoke to young pilgrims about their common bond.

“We come from different cultures and peoples, we speak different languages and we wear different clothes,” he said at his welcome ceremony Jan. 24.

“Each of our peoples has had a different history and lived through different situations. We are different in so many ways! But none of it has stopped us from meeting one another and rejoicing to be together. The reason for this, we know, is that something unites us,” he said, referring to their faith. 

Making the trip from Nebraska was a group of 32 pilgrims, including Father Carl Zoucha, pastor of Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in Omaha, who led the group, and Father Ryan Kaup from the Archdiocese of Lincoln. Four women religious, 19 young adults and seven teens also took part.

All members of the group spoke English and Spanish, said Miguel Barreiro, trip coordinator and member of Holy Name Parish in Omaha. 

Kyle Loecker, a student at Kenrick-Glennon seminary in St. Louis and member of St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill, said the pilgrimage strengthened his conviction that the Catholic Church is one. He spoke of the church being unified in a number of ways, first under the leadership of Pope Francis.

He then drew a connection between the countries he witnessed at World Youth Day and the parishes of the archdiocese.

“In our home Archdiocese of Omaha, our vision is one church, encountering Jesus, equipping disciples, living mercy, but it starts with the one church,” he said. “Even though we’re from different parishes, you could make the analogy that the countries that were represented at World Youth Day, those are like the different parishes across (the Archdiocese of) Omaha,” he said.

The international community of young people coming together is similar to parishes working together within an archdiocese, he said.

Alejandra Mayorga, a member of Assumption-Guadalupe Parish, also focused on the universality of the church. “I’ve realized that there are so many young people around the entire world who are religiously engaged and it goes farther than just my community here in Omaha or Nebraska.”

“It has made me feel a lot more welcome in the Catholic religion and it’s also made me feel closer to God in hearing the pope speak,” she said. “The words that he said encouraged me to be more involved within my church community and helping other people my age feel more welcome.” 

Differences in language did not hamper the solidarity of pilgrims with those of other countries. Barreiro recounted the story of the Omaha group taking a bus across the city with some pilgrims from Senegal. 

The Senegalese began to sing a song to the Americans in their native language, he recalled. The Omaha group responded with a hymn they knew in Spanish. This went back and forth between the groups until the Senegalese finally answered with a song in Spanish, the only one they knew, he said.

Another way the group shared a communal experience of faith was prayer with the Holy Father. At the large group events, such as Stations of the Cross, the evening vigil and the closing Mass, young people transcended language barriers to pray as one church.

Everyone recited prayers such as the Our Father and the Apostle’s Creed in Latin, the universal language of the church, said Loecker. That “drove home the fact that we are one church,” he said. 

An event of this magnitude reaches out to believers from all walks of life, said Barreiro. “If they come to this event, people will confirm, first of all, how many Catholics we are in the world and really how strong our faith is because you see the people singing in the streets and other people answer and say hello. They’ve never met but just by the fact that there’s the pope, Christianity is unified.” he said.

The sense of international unity was overwhelming and produced an experience of joy, said Barreiro. “It was really like the whole country was so happy.”

Father Zoucha related this feeling to a deep spiritual joy that comes through a mature relationship with Christ. “We can experience all of life with the joy of Jesus when he said, ‘I came that my joy would be yours and your joy may be complete,’” he said.  

“That’s something to really hang onto. It’s true and our life is better as we participate in our faith life.”

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