World Youth Day ‘life-changing’ for diocesan pilgrims

Youth from East Tennessee among 3 million people who traveled to Poland to see Pope Francis

By Bill Brewer

As some 3 million pilgrims from around the globe descended on Poland July 26-31 for World Youth Day 2016, including a half-dozen from the Diocese of Knoxville, there was not a stranger among them.

That assessment by Beth Parsons, youth director at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, made the diocesan contingent feel right at home as they shared their common Catholic faith, varied cultures, and unique stories in the presence of the Holy Spirit and Pope Francis.

“Gathering with these youth from all over the world, speaking, praying, attending Mass with them, is something I will never forget. We were all gathered for a common reason. No one was a stranger, and no one was alone. It was a beautiful thing, one I hope and pray we can carry with us to our home parishes and communities,” said Mrs. Parsons, who traveled with her son, Logan, a seminarian.

In addition to Mrs. Parsons and her son, those from the Diocese of Knoxville traveling to Poland were Doug Perry, Paley Perry, Sloane Perry, Becca Harber, and Carolyn Lubthisophon.
Those from the Diocese of Knoxville joined a group of about 60 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Denver under the spiritual direction of Father Rocco Porter, pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in the Denver Archdiocese.

The East Tennessee pilgrims’ 15-day journey began in Warsaw for an eight-day tour of Poland leading up to World Youth Day.

Diocese of Knoxville youth Logan Parsons, Sloane Perry, Becca Harber, and Paley Perry at Divine Mercy Church in Zabki, Poland

Highlights of the pilgrimage for the East Tennesseans were a trip to Niepokalanów and the monastery that St. Maximilian Kolbe founded; Glogowiec, the birthplace of St. Faustina, her tomb and the miraculous Image of the Merciful Jesus; Mass at the Jasna Gora monastery to see the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa before visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps; and Mass at the Basilica of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is St. John Paul II’s baptismal parish, and a tour of St. John Paul II’s home.

“Our visit to Jasna Góra Monastery, where the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is displayed, and the home and parish where St. John Paul II grew up were two of my favorite days; personally life-changing for me. Another part of our trip, we traveled to Niepokalanów, the monastery founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe. The crowds had started to gather and our time at the monastery was longer than we had planned. Everyone began to gather back on the buses and we were waiting for two more people, two priests from the Archdiocese of Denver. After probably 15 minutes they hurried on the bus with a small box in one of their hands. Inquisitive, I asked Father Rocco what was in the box. He slowly opened it. It was a first-class relic of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He had asked at the end of our visit for a third-class relic. After a lot of scurrying around they gave him the first-class one. It was beautiful,” Mrs. Parsons said.

Mrs. Parsons said at World Youth Day, the young people from East Tennessee were especially moved by the opening ceremony, morning catechesis, Stations of the Cross with Pope Francis, prayer vigil with the Holy Father as well as adoration and a candlelight vigil before the closing ceremonies.

Mrs. Parsons said for her, walking in the footsteps of St. John Paul II was a life-changing experience. But seeing Pope Francis in person also was a moving experience.

“One of the key moments for me was seeing the pope for the first time. We were told not to expect to get too close to him. At the papal welcome on July 27, Pope Francis arrived and rode around the complex with over 300,000 people in attendance. As soon as we discovered the route he was taking we ran up to the edge of our roped-off section. The energy and anticipation from the crowd was incredible; singing, dancing, laughter. When he drove by our section, we were less than 10 feet from him. Our hands were shaking, cameras and tears rolling. It was the chance of a lifetime,” the youth director said.

Catholic pilgrims from around the world reported thoroughly enjoying interacting with other Catholics during the six-day event, sharing their faith and their excitement at seeing Pope Francis.

“My faith was strengthened every step we took at daily Mass, adoration, and visiting these holy places, but mostly through conversations with those in our group and other pilgrims along the way. I learned we are all coming from different life experiences, ethnicities, and places on our spiritual journeys,” Mrs. Parsons said. “It doesn’t make us better or worse; we are all equal in His eyes. The Church and the sacraments help us grow deeper in love with Him, but there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more.”

World Youth Day was started by St. John Paul II in 1985. Since then, it has been held in Italy, Argentina, Spain, Poland, the United States, the Philippines, France, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Brazil. The next one is set for 2019 in Panama.

Mrs. Parsons said pilgrims from the diocese have traveled to World Youth Days in the past, and she’s hopeful East Tennessee youth will continue to go.

“World Youth Day was so special to me for several reasons. The opportunity to travel to the country of St. John Paul II’s home along with so many other saints and follow in their footsteps is a joy that will never leave me. Each day was the best day, something new, beautiful, and Catholic! Secondly, to witness the universal Church showed me the Church is alive and youthful. Last, but certainly not least, traveling with our son, Logan, was a gift. He is one of eight, and now a seminarian for our diocese, these one-on-one moments are few and far between,” Mrs. Parsons said. ■

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