By Kelly Kao, September 2013
Each of us is called to be a disciple of Christ and Pope Francis directly called three million youth on Copacabana beach in July 2013. With the waves crashing along the shore and the sand beneath our toes, the Pope drew striking parallels between our summoning and the summoning of the first disciples. He helped us imagine Simon Peter and Andrew casting their nets into the sea, along with James and John in their boat mending their nets with their father, Zebedee. And with a single call, they left everything behind to follow Jesus. We too are called to be “fishers of men” (Mt 4:19) and to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) – the commanding theme of World Youth Day (WYD) 2013.
The excitement. Latin America, as you may know, is the home of approximately 450 million Catholics, or half of the world’s Catholic population. Brazil is the country with the largest number of Catholics: 123 million. To see Papa Francis welcomed and embraced by millions of Catholics in his home continent would be the ultimate Pope experience.
The intrigue. The Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) organized a 27-day pilgrimage for hundreds of international youth prior to WYD. In route to Rio de Janeiro, the pilgrimage would take us through Argentina and Brazil to seminaries and homes for the disabled, along with major churches, basilicas, missions and shrines. I saw the days spent as a pilgrim visiting holy places and living minimally as an occasion to grow in virtue. Since I work on See the Lord, a Catholic non-profit organization currently focused in Taiwan, a month in South America was a perfect opportunity to research future expansion possibilities for our mission work. A better understanding of Latin American healthcare practices, social norms, and most importantly, how Catholics there practiced and lived out their faith proved worthy of a visit. Lastly, the pilgrimage would allow me to spend an extended period of time with Taiwanese Catholic youth. I spend most of my time on missions with U.S. volunteers and elderly Taiwanese aboriginal villagers. My desire to learn more about Taiwanese Catholic youth comes from my missionary spirit. In order to properly evangelize in this country, I must understand them because they are the future of the Church in Taiwan.
We were very blessed to have twenty devoted and enthusiastic members in the Taiwanese group – five religious and fifteen youth (or young at heart). For the majority of our travels, though, we were actually part of a larger group of 240 American, Canadian, and Argentinian pilgrims. During the 27 days, we clung to each other and learned how to trust in God, the Almighty Provider. I’ve counted a few ways He provided for us below.
#1: All of us traveled safely. Our four large buses caravanned daily, covering about 3,000 miles across Argentina and Brazil. Sometimes our bus rides were 18-hours long. Considering we spent so much of our time on the road, it was a true blessing we were all safe.
#2: We never went hungry, physically or spiritually. There was never a shortage of bread and dulce de leche (a staple of Argentinian diets) or bags of Taiwanese snacks. I learned on this trip that the Taiwanese are very fearful of going hungry – there is a reason why Taiwan is the country with the highest concentration of convenience stores. Besides filling our stomachs with delicious food, we had the opportunity to fill ourselves with the Heavenly Host during daily Mass. This nourishment was a constant reminder that it is the Word of God and the Holy Eucharist that truly fills. Despite the regular chaos and noise of travel, we always had this one constant to steer us back on the path to righteousness when the constant rigor of the pilgrim life became too overwhelming.
#3: We always had a place to sleep. It didn’t matter if the place we stayed was the floor of a classroom, a bus, or a dark basement with leaky walls, we always had a place to rest our heads.
Reflecting upon some of the areas in which God provided for us on this journey, the necessities of life were clearly made evident. I am reminded of Mark 6:8 when Jesus sent the Twelve on their mission, “He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts.” We weren’t as brave as the disciples, being without food, sack, or money; however, we trusted to the best of our ability that God would provide. And surely, He did.
In all honesty, the sites of the historical churches and the grandiose Iguazu Falls were of no comparison to my WYD experience of being in the presence of the Holy Father. It was during the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with Pope Francis that I understood why I took this journey. A magnificent ripple effect took place on the beach as millions followed the Pope by kneeling down in adoration. It was then, while I was on my knees alongside the Pope, that it hit me that we are all servants of God kneeling by the example of the Servant of the servants of God. Consider Luke 22:26-27, “Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table? I am among you as the one who serves.” Jesus Christ humbled Himself to serve others even though He was the Son of Man. He is the ultimate example of complete sacrifice out of pure love. That evening, it was by the example of the Vicar of Christ that three million of us were once again reminded to humble ourselves as servants of Christ. Overcome with emotion, I wanted to rush the stage and give Papa Francis a hug. I managed to contain myself.
Like most pilgrims headed to WYD, I had no idea what transformation God had in store for me. Yes, I heard the calling to be a disciple, a servant of Christ. Yes, I knew I needed to make disciples of all nations. But how? God is clever, and God is funny. He sent me on a tour of the other side of the globe to learn the answer: prayer.
The long bus rides were the perfect place for us to recite rosaries, share vocation stories, have theology Q&A sessions, and reflect on our faith with nearby passengers. The topic of plenary indulgences came up because we always prayed the rosary with the intention of seeking a plenary indulgence. We learned that indulgences could only be applied to oneself or a soul in purgatory, not a living person. This was the start of my rosary praying frenzy. To this day, I still pray a daily rosary for the petition for a plenary indulgence for a soul in purgatory.
Perchance a little background may be important here to understand the gravity of this transformation. As a missionary overseas, I spend much of my time on corporal works of mercy, namely, visiting the sick or providing health care to them. Sadly, I had been devaluing the spiritual works of mercy. This pilgrimage allowed me to prioritize prayer for the living and the dead. Before the pilgrimage, I was constantly working and working but not dedicating enough time to prayer. I was so overwhelmed with trying to make more disciples; I neglected my own calling to be a good disciple of prayer. Even Jesus needed to retreat to pray according to Luke 6:12, “In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God.” Without constant prayer, my works were not being done in communion with God’s will. Through the Holy Rosary, I am able to spend more time reflecting on the life of Jesus, and how Mother Mary was with Him every step of the way. We all have our own crosses, but we do not bear them alone. Just as Mary followed Jesus as He carried His cross to Calvary, she is our advocate as well.
The building of better spiritual habits has made a tremendous impact on my missionary life. Challenges come, and I find myself turning to prayer rather than my own intellect. God really is clever and funny. Clever: because it took the incentive of praying a daily rosary for others in order for me to understand the importance of prayer. Funny: because He brought me all the way to South America to learn this lesson.
To spare you a trip to South America, allow me to impart some lessons I have learned on this journey. That day we were on the beach, being called to be “fishers of men,” I wondered how each of us was supposed to “go and make disciples of all nations.” We stood there, clapping and cheering on the Pope, but did we really understand? We didn’t leave behind our sleeping bags to make disciples right then and there. We as Catholics are, however, each called to the New Evangelization, the very purpose Blessed Pope John Paul II instituted WYD in 1984. We are called to deepen our own faith and then proclaim the Gospel. Some of you may be prayer warriors; consider furthering your faith with 30 minutes of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or scriptural reading (by the way, both of these are ways to obtain a plenary indulgence). Some of you may already be proclaiming the Gospel by teaching catechism classes; consider reaching out to a friend that is being engulfed by secularism or has fallen away from the Sacraments. Brothers and Sisters of Christ, there is much to be done and the world is waiting, so “go and make disciples of all nations!”