Alaska youth prep for WYD pilgrimage, Mass with the pope

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Approximately 160 Alaska youth are entering final preparations for this summer’s World Youth Day in Madrid with Pope Benedict XVI. Set to take place at the end of August, the Alaska group plans to travel through Germany, Switzerland and France before joining youth from 180 other countries for a week of prayer and learning about the Catholic faith. Trip leader Bob McMorrow, who has eight previous World Youth Day pilgrimages under his belt, spoke to the Catholic Anchor about the upcoming trip. Comments were edited for length and clarity.

What preparations are underway right now?

McMorrow: Hopefully the youth are wrapping up fund-raising and are preparing spiritually. We are encouraging them to prepare by learning about the faith and reading some of Pope Benedict’s writings. Hopefully, youth are also developing healthy prayer habits as well.

How many of these pilgrimages have you done?

McMorrow: I’ve been to eight. The first was back in 1993 in Denver. For me, that particular trip was life-changing in that it was a conversion experience. It helped me to embrace my Catholic faith. The trip to the Philippines was the most profound because of the people there. They had very little, at least financially, but were some of the most joyous people I have ever encountered.

Has World Youth Day changed over the years?

McMorrow: Every one has a different focus and theme. There is always a biblical passage for each World Youth day that works as the theme. This year, in Spain the passage comes from Colossians 2:7, “Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith.”

What are your hopes for this year?

McMorrow: That people will embrace the pilgrimage and grow in faith and in understanding of the Catholic Church. The goal is to make this a pilgrimage, a chance to step away from normal life and focus on God. We help encourage this with a no-technology policy — meaning no phones, iPods, etc., so that youth can focus on God. It also allows them to communicate, face-to-face instead of texting and to provide some quiet time. After all, God is usually encountered in silence.

What is on the agenda?

McMorrow: After landing in Germany, we drive by tour bus to Lourdes, France where we will spend a couple of days on retreat. After that, we head to Barcelona to visit the cathedral there and other holy sites, including Montserrat, which is an ancient pilgrimage site. We will also stop at another ancient pilgrimage site at Zaragoza, which is where Mary appeared to Saint James the Apostle. Then, we head to Toledo and Madrid with an optional tour of Avila, of the Saint Teresa and John of the Cross fame. Finally, we will join youth from the other countries for World Youth Day.

What is the most poignant event during World Youth Day?

McMorrow: The overnight candlelight vigil before the closing Mass. More than two million people gather to hold vigil overnight with the pope. The sea of candles and the ability to spend the night in adoration with so many people is incredible.

As someone who has participated in all kinds of youth events, what is unique about World Youth Days?

McMorrow: It is the most effective youth ministry event. It exposes youth to so many uniquely Catholic experiences. They get to encounter the Holy Father and cardinals from around the world. They see the universality of the church with all of the countries that participate. They get to partake of the sacraments and learn the faith. And, probably most important of all, they get to pick up their cross and be on a pilgrimage.

What can Catholics in the Anchorage Archdiocese do to support these youth?

McMorrow: Encourage them to attend this or a future World Youth Day, keep us in your prayers and ask youth about the trip when they come back.

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