South Floridian Ronald Rivas said he’s traveling to World Youth Day, a six-day festival of Catholic faith in Rio de Janeiro, without preconceptions.
“I’m going without expectations — both spiritual and personal — and letting God do all the work,’’ he said before he left with a small group of young people from Prince of Peace Church in west-Miami Dade County. “I’m traveling very, very lightly and leaving material things behind.’’
Rivas, 30, a replay operator for major sporting events, joins hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims who have been arriving in Rio in recent days for the event, which has the distinction of being the venue for Pope Francis’ first overseas trip since becoming pope. He arrived in Brazil Monday afternoon.
By the time the pope makes his first official appearance at a WYD event, prayers and a speech on the sand at Copacabana Beach on Thursday evening, more than 1 million young people are expected to have assembled. The pope arrived Monday and is carrying out a separate schedule before meeting with the youths.
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About 130 young Catholics from South Florida have traveled to Rio as part of organized groups and others are going as individuals, said Juan Di Prado, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Miami.
To send off the local group, Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated Mass last Tuesday for 22 pilgrims from the Southeast Pastoral Institute, which works with the Catholic Hispanic community, and five young people from Prince of Peace Church.
Stefano Benigni, director of the Neocatechumenal Way of Florida, is also leading a group of 100 South Floridians to the event. The Neocatechumenal Way is a Catholic movement that embraces the “New Evangelization” called for by Pope John Paul II.
During the mass, “Archbishop Wenski said that it’s very easy to make a tourism trip to Rio. He said it was very important to keep the pilgrimage,’’ said Rivas.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of opportunities for fun for the young pilgrims, who generally range in age from 16 to 35. There will be 158 bands on hand that will give 362 shows and some 60 models of WYD shirts for sale. A favorite activity in recent days has been snapping pictures with life-size sand sculptures of the pope on Copacabana Beach.
Among the high points of WYD will be at Campus Fidei, a once-vacant lot in Guaratiba that has been transformed into a field of faith. Francis will meet the multitudes of young people for a prayer vigil Saturday night, followed by a closing mass on Sunday.
The theme of this year’s World Youth Day, an event that takes place on an international scale every two to three years, is “Go and make disciples of all nations,’’ a passage taken from the end of Matthew’s gospel that encourages evangelization.
Rivas attended the last World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011, along with about 2 million other pilgrims. This event is expected to be smaller because of the expense and distance in getting to Brazil for many young people.
What drew him to Madrid, said Rivas, was the “opportunity to experience something outside daily mass and experience the universal church.’’
He said he returned home with a new perspective. “It changed my whole outlook on life. There is a lot more positivity in my life now,’’ he said.
Francis “has shown since he’s been pope that it’s very important to be humble,’’ he said. “I expect this will be a very humbling experience.’’
This World Youth Day comes at a time when the numbers of faithful are eroding. Reaching out to young people and staying connected to them well beyond Rio will be one of the goals.
Church and event organizers are using multiple social media tools to get out the word about the event, which includes some 600 activities from masses, prayer vigils, catechism classes and church tours to music, dance, exhibitions, 150 film screenings and hikes.
“Evidently the biggest challenge now is for the church to get a moment of attention from young people, to be in touch with youth, because young people are attracted by so many interests, so many references, and it’s not always so easy for the Church… to be able to get into their hearts — to have that little door open in order to speak, to guide,’’ São Paulo Archbishop Dom Odilo Pedro Scherer told TV Globo in a recent interview.
“The great challenge for the Church is, therefore, to make this happen, to make young people feel in tune with, to feel welcomed by, to feel at home in the Church,’’ he said.
To stay in tune with the new generation, Pope Francis will be tweeting, and there’s a phone app, Twitter account, Facebook page and websites for World Youth Day. Pilgrims will even be able to send their pictures direct to the Holy Father in an online diary.
En route to Rio on the papal plane, Francis told reporters Monday that what is needed today is a “culture of inclusion, a culture of encounter.”
Rivas’ sister Maria Rivas, 31, also made the trip to Rio. As a Nicaraguan, she said she’s very excited to see the first Latin American pope. But beyond that, Rivas, who works as a freight forwarder, said Francis “exudes this image of a father figure that so many of us young people are looking for.
“It seems like he can be a great friend, a spiritual director, a father, a brother,” she said. “That’s what is so exciting for me.’’