Hundreds of diocesan youth to make pilgrimage to see pope

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Lines will be long and waits will test patience. It might be hot and it most certainly will be tiring. Yet when several hundred diocesan teenagers join the masses in Philadelphia for the pope's visit, they will gain something that lasts beyond sunburns and sleep deprivation.

"We can never guess the effect millions of people gathering in faith has on an individual," said Kevin Bohli, diocesan Youth Ministry Office director. Bohli helped organize a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for nearly 600 teens from 20 parishes. Thirteen buses will carry the youths, their chaperones and about eight priests to the Festival of Families and the papal Mass.

Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington has organized a separate trip that includes 185 students, Father Gregory S. Thompson, O'Connell chaplain, and chaperones.

"A young person can hear about the church and participate in it their whole lives," Bohli said amid trip preparations. "But when they see so many Catholics in one place, it can ignite a spark that inspires them to see that the faith is bigger than their family, bigger than their parish. Their eyes open up and they really listen."

Of course the highlight of the trip is the opportunity to see Pope Francis, but Bohli recognizes that with such large crowds, students might only get a glimpse of the pope from a distance - or perhaps on a Jumbotron. There have been some last-minute changes to ticketing policies, so planning has been a challenge.

Even if a close-up of the popemobile or a papal selfie is unlikely, Bohli is committed to making the experience spiritually transformative for students. He's booked Ennie Hickman, a national speaker who's made appearances at WorkCamp and the annual high school Rally, and Catholic musician John Hopke.

Teens will pile on buses around the diocese after school Friday, Sept. 25, and head to Sandy Hill Camp and Retreat Center in Maryland, about an hour south of Philadelphia. Mass, eucharistic adoration and small-group discussions will allow for faith and friendship building, said Bohli.

O'Connell students will stay at two parishes in Pennsylvania and also will have time to pray in front of the Eucharist and get to know one another.

The O'Connell and diocesan contingents plan to attend the Festival of Families on Saturday and the papal Mass Sunday. Both groups are attempting to obtain tickets for the latter. Tickets are not required for either event, but they secure a spot closer to the pope.

Rachel Giaccio, a ninth-grader at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, would love to be near the Holy Father but believes the pilgrimage itself has great value.

"For a long time people have gone great distances to see sacred people and places, and I want to be part of that tradition," she said.

Isabel Anderson, a senior at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, is a big Pope Francis fan and signed up for the pilgrimage as soon as she could.

"I love his message of love and acceptance," Anderson said. "I really see Christ in him."

Because the pope's actions show such clear love, she said he's helped her explain the core of the Catholic faith to non-Catholic friends, including her best friend, who is agnostic.

"He washes people's feet; he spends time with those who are considered lowest in society, and he meets people where they are," said Anderson.

David Owens, chairman of the O'Connell theology department, hopes the trip will inspire students to declare their faith unabashedly.

"Catholics are not known for openly professing their faith," he said, but seeing so many people of all walks of life publically proclaiming their belief can challenge students to say emphatically "that Jesus is Lord, Our Savior."

Bohli believes the teens will be altered by the pilgrimage no matter how close - or far - they are from the pope.

"The whole idea of pilgrimage is that you go out and come back a different person," he said. "It's about growing close to God and Christ; that's the theology behind a pilgrimage."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015