St. Mary youth experience World Youth Day

Published 12:08 am Sunday, September 11, 2011

The group stands in front of the Colosseum on a tour of Rome. Pictured, from left, front row, are Janee McKinney, Doris Blanchard, Peggy Olivero, Megan Olivero, Margaret Searcy, Courtney Rushing and Charlene Rushing; back row, Cavin Skidmore, Amanda Hudson, William Sayre, Anna Roboski, Sara Beth Willard, Jake McKinney, Pepper Taylor, Garrett Smith and Maggie Smith.

A pilgrimage of epic proportions took St. Mary Basilica youth through a tour of structures far grander than Natchez’s antebellum homes and sprawling gardens.

Instead of 17th century ancestors gazing from framed canvases, the youth could simply tilt their heads to gaze themselves — at the work of Michelangelo, to gawk at the expanse of St. Peter’s Basilica, or to see the Pope himself.

A group of 16 Natchez youth and a few chaperones traveled to Italy first, and then Madrid, Spain for World Youth Day Aug. 16-21 — a meeting of young people from all over the world gathered around the Vicar of Christ, the Pope.

St. Mary Basilica youth stopped to pose in front of the Cathedral Almunda where the Pope said Mass in Madrid for World Youth Day. Pictured, from left, are William Sayre, Sara Beth Willard, Pepper Taylor, Courtney Rushing, Garrett Smith, Megan Olivero, Jake McKinney, Cavin Skidmore and Anna Roboski.

Approximately 1.4 million people attended WYD, which is every four years in a major world city.

And the youth waited approximately 11 hours to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI as he passed in front of them — an experience Sarah Beth Willard and Pepper Taylor said they will never forget.

“We were as far to the front as World Youth Day people could be,” Willard said.

The students said staying in one spot all day was a challenge. When they weren’t standing their ground against of group of Argentineans who wanted their spots, they were trying to stay cool.

“This is Madrid in August,” Willard said. “We were lobsters. But it was worth staying.”

The girls said Pope Benedict was much smaller than they anticipated as he passed by in his “Pope-mobile.”

“He’s so cute,” Willard said, laughing. “Grandfather-like. I kind of wanted to squeeze his cheeks.”

But Willard became serious when she said seeing the Pope filled her with a sense of peace.

“I respect the Pope,” Willard said. “But actually seeing him — it overwhelmed me. Others might have taken it differently, but to me, everything got kind of calm.”

The girls said people were chanting, “Benedicto” as the Pope made his way to the platform. Pope Benedict blessed the masses in different languages, including English.

Group members even attended mass with the Pope.

“It was so amazing to hear all of those people shut up and just listen to mass,” Taylor said. “And then we had communion — which to me, was awesome.”

The crowds were overwhelming, Taylor said.

submitted photo At left, Cavin Skidmore, William Sayre, Garrett Smith and Jake McKinney walk Madrid draped in American flags.

“When we pulled into Madrid, there were so many young people,” Taylor said. “I was surprised.”

Maggie Smith and Peggy Olivero, moms who chaperoned on the trip, said people were packed, standing shoulder to shoulder as far as they could see. Jumbo screens were around every corner so the masses could hear and see what was going on.

Protestors had a presence in Madrid as well — speaking out against the economic cost Madrid would incur to have the Pope for WYD, and against policies of the Catholic Church in general.

Group members said they did get “the finger” from protestors, but everyone else they encountered were thrilled to meet Americans, and especially to score an American flag.

“People were chanting ‘USA, USA,’ from other countries when they saw our flags,” Taylor said.

Youth wanted to trade flags too. The girls said the Italians especially coveted the American flags. Luckily the St. Mary group brought some small American flags to distribute.

They said peers from other countries were also giddy to pose for photos with the Mississippi youth.

“We had people sign our flags,” Taylor said.

Besides seeing the Pope and more than one million peers from every corner of the earth, the group seemed the most impressed with St. Peter’s in Rome.

“It was breath-taking,” Taylor said. “Beyond huge.”

Smith said that one St. Mary youth, Jake, went to confession. Jake said it was a humbling experience, even though the priest spoke little English.

The group also explored the Treve Fountain, catacombs, the Coliseum.

“In Rome, you have all of this modern stuff,” Smith said. “But then you turn the corner, and there is this Coliseum that has been there forever.”

The group also took a day trip to Assisi in Italy where they visited St. Francis Basilica.

“Assisi was more like what you would expect Italy to be,” Smith said. “In Rome we were a little disappointed because there was so much grafitti.”

The group was impressed with one Italian food item in particular — gelato. They said the best Italian food of the trip was actually eaten in Spain.

The Rev. David O’Connor of St. Mary Basilica in Natchez said he is glad that Natchez youth had the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to WYD and experience Italy.

The next WYD will be in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.