Where they have been: Pilgrims bring journey into the everyday

The question “Where are you from?” is a common one.

It certainly was asked during World Youth Day, a global event that welcomed pilgrims, most ages 16 to 35, to Lisbon, Portugal in August.

Gabriela Del Rio Díaz, youth ministry coordinator for the Raleigh diocese, was one of those pilgrims. For her, the question is often answered literally with a location. But, she noted, it also can have a figurative meaning.

“God ‘writes the maps’ of our lives that we can venture to explore with his help,” she said, noting the path of her heart. “I can easily look back to answer where I have been and where I have seen God active along the way. This gives me a faith to venture.”

It’s been more than a month since they returned home. World Youth Day pilgrims from the diocese are, of course, still from eastern North Carolina. But maybe their life paths have been changed because of the experience?   

In addition to Del Rio, Father Luke Rawicki, L.C., chaplain at Cardinal Gibbons High School, and Father Eric Michael Imbao, C.I.C.M., of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Tarboro, also led the pilgrims from the diocese.

“One thing that will stay in my mind is the joy I’ve felt meeting people who are passionate for God. We sang and danced practically anywhere we found ourselves exhausted and tired,” said Father Eric. “Instead of being impatient and complaining, we just had to be joyful at that moment. Pope Francis’ words that the Church is always a place 'para todos, todos, todos' will remain.” 

It was an experience Father Luke said he would recommend to anyone working with youth.

“Young people yearn to be a part of something bigger and feel the support and encouragement to really be saints,” he said, adding that the Gibbons students he led were moved by their experience at Fatima during the pilgrim walk to the shrine.

World Youth Day is renowned for its ability to forge connections between faith and the youth.

According to Vatican News, the week-long event was an electrifying tapestry of encounters, reflections and prayers by young people from all corners of the globe. United by the theme "Mary arose and went with haste" (Luke 1:39), participants answered the call of Pope Francis to come together and explore the depths of their faith and spirituality.

It was an exploration that’s continuing. In Raleigh, echoes of this extraordinary experience reverberated. Almost three weeks after their return, some pilgrims reunited Aug. 26 for a Mass with Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama at Cardinal Gibbons High School.

This homecoming was far from ordinary; it was an exchange of shared moments and boundless emotions. It was also complete with welcome signs and plenty of energy.

Bishop Luis congratulated the participants and underlined the profound significance of their meeting. In his homily, he praised their courage in the face of sacrifices and discomforts, and he encouraged them to stay engaged within their communities and collaborate as catalysts for change.

Among the pilgrims, Anthony Pablo, a parishioner of Maria, Reina De Las Américas in Mount Olive, cherished the memory of being in the presence of Pope Francis. He shared the message he took to heart: "No tengan miedo, tengan coraje" – "Don't be afraid, have courage." For him, these words meant embracing God's path without fear.

For Karen Hildalgo, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Angels in Mount Olive, this marked her third World Youth Day attendance. The sheer sight of thousands of faithful gathered never failed to inspire awe within her. She mused, "This time, I thought I was ready to not be surprised, but it felt like starting over again."

For Fatima Gloria Mesa-Romero, the camaraderie with fellow pilgrims stood out. The warmth and friendliness of everyone was an embodiment of the shared faith that had united them on this remarkable journey.

Other pilgrims shared their thoughts, too:

“When it was time to sing, we sang; when it was time to dance, we danced. And when it was time to pray, we prayed. We prayed for our families and all our communities. It was so nice being able to pray for others in different basilicas, which left us amazed by their beauty and holiness.” - Amy Galvez Ortiz

“I think the Lord chose each and every one of us in that group to be there, so I feel like it’s our responsibility to share those experiences with others and try to encourage people to strengthen their faith … maybe try to encourage them to go to the next WYD!” - Edwin Castaneda

“I grew stronger in my faith at WYD. There would be times back at home where I wouldn’t want to pray, or I just didn’t think he was listening to me. We would go to the gym lodging and go to sleep at night … those were the times I prayed on my own.” - Joseph Vasquez

“The moment I loved the most was how each day we worked as a team by encouraging each other.” - Franuel Chima Cagal 

“Before the trip I was losing my faith due to school and work. One memory that has been with me is when Pope Francis said on one of his messages 'not to be afraid.'” - Balois Manzanarez

“I experienced calmness and a true connection with God. A moment that will stay in my memories is singing in the metro with other pilgrims. That brought me so much joy and inspiration.” - Diana Hernandez

“This was the best trip of my life … I am now more understanding of dreams, all things by the almighty God. The most beauty happens when the whole world is silent to adore our Lord Jesus Christ. My wish to visit the Basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul and more than that were accomplished.” - Peter Nguyen

“The theatre and dance play of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony touched my life. Seeing his conversion story live was such an eye opener for me. This play was not even in English, but it still made me go through all kinds of emotions. It helped me see that we are all saints, and how our everyday actions and behaviors can degrade us.” - Monica Del Rio

“During the pilgrimage I learned to be patient with Gods’ timing and to trust in him. I personally experienced how huge the love of God is.” - Alexa Hurtado

“The moment that will stay in my memory after WYD is receiving the Body of Christ during Mass … that moment was just perfect … peace.” - Erica Gomez Arellano

“God touched my life by lifting my spirit when it was low, through the people there on our trip, through the Mass, and through all the different churches I was able to visit. An action I will take after arriving from WYD would be to pray more every day, that way I can grow my faith stronger than before.” - Jonay Hernandez

“Seeing thousands of people travel all over the world to worship one God is so amazing. I am not alone in the Catholic Church … there were thousands of us sharing the same faith.” - Fatima Meza

“Seeing the universal Church by seeing youth from all over the world … the beauty of Eucharistic Adoration and beautiful worship music … Mass in front of the tomb of St. Peter … Attending World Youth Day 2023 brought to my heart many moments of gratefulness and spiritual growth.” - Leticia Ortega


For more photos, see One hundred from diocese join 28,600+ from the U.S. at World Youth Day.