Catholic youth impressed by pope on trip to Italy

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 9/13/00.

Group at St. Peter's After two years of preparations, four youth from St. Louis Catholic Church enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Pope John Paul II and worship with more than two million Catholics from around the world.

Cassie Frieler, Jessica Heinen, Sarah Ryan, and Jamie Wendlandt spent two weeks in Italy in August to attend World Youth Day 2000. They were accompanied by Father Richard Leisen and Laurie Rausch, director of youth ministries at St. Louis Catholic Church.

World Youth Day 2000 lasted from Tuesday, Aug. 15, to Sunday, Aug. 20, in Rome. The local group was among 200 Minnesotans who attended the celebration. They spent five days touring Italy before spending six days in Rome, where they saw the pope at three events.

"It was a great pilgrimage," said Frieler. "I learned a lot from it."

Jamie Wendlandt, Jessica Heinen, Cassie Frieler, Father Richard Leisen, and Sarah Ryan outside of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Church history in Italy
Father Leisen, Rausch, and the four youth departed for Italy on Thursday, Aug. 10, and arrived in Milan on Friday, Aug. 11. They spent four days in northern Italy, visiting Verona, Venice, Pisa, Florence, and Assisi on their way to Rome.

They saw Michaelangelo's famous sculpture, David, took a gondola ride in Venice, visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and saw a number of historic churches. Nearly every city was the birthplace of a saint or the site of a martyr, Rausch said.

The trip was a visual lesson in the history of the church. "To see where we've come in 2000 years was really great," she said. The youth were amazed at the size and grandeur of the ancient cathedrals. In Minnesota, a historic structure is still less than 200 years old. Italy has ones that are ten times as old.

"The sites I most enjoyed were the churches," Jamie Wendlandt wrote in the church newsletter. "To see all of the work that was done and how long it took made me wonder how they did it all. I feel that I have spiritually grown by seeing these sites and hearing what the Catholic church went through in the past to get where we are today."

Frieler said the size of the churches was impressive, but so were the history and the details. "It was just hard to believe that they could do such work without the technology of today," she said. "These churches were so elaborate."

The group also did some touring in Rome, after the start of the World Youth Day celebration. In addition to St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican museums, the group saw the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Catacombs.

Rausch noted the difference in the condition between the Coliseum, which is largely intact, and the ruins of the ancient Roman buildings surrounding the Forum. The Coliseum, she was told, was preserved by Christians as a holy site because of the martyrs who died there.

The trip to Italy and Rome was the first for the four youth and Rausch. Father Leisen had studied in Rome previously.

World Youth Day
Vigil World Youth Day attracted 2.5 million people, mostly Catholics, from around the world. Of the 2.5 million people, 1.5 million were from Italy. The other million came from around the world.

Rome was full of people attending the World Youth Day ceremonies. Luckily, the congestion was reduced by three-fifths of the city's population (Rome has a total of three million residents) being on vacation.

Jessica Heinen, Jamie Wendlandt, Cassie Frieler, Sarah Ryan and Laurie Rausch took part in an overnight vigil with more than two million people from around the world.

The handling of the sheer number of people at the event by the organizers also impressed Rausch. Food was distributed, water was available, and mass events had ample sound systems and large screen televisions for the audience to hear and watch, even when removed from the stage. "Even seeing it on the screen was amazing," said Rausch.

Pope John Paul II spoke to the visitors three times: at a welcome outside St. Peter's Basilica, at a vigil at Tor Vergata, and at a closing mass at Tor Vergata the next morning.

To reach the vigil, the youth were required to walk 10 kilometers. The stage featured a six-story cross, the pope arrived by helicopter, which he needs to avoid causing traffic jams, and the vigil service ended with a fireworks display.

The local group saw the pope as "a small white dot in a maroon background," according to Rausch. He did drive close by them once in the popemobile.

The youth were excited to see the 80-year-old supreme pontiff, and Pope John Paul II reciprocated the feeling. One exchange witnessed by the Paynesville group at the overnight vigil at Tor Vergata had a bunch of youth shouting, "We love John Paul II," and the Pope responding, "John Paul II loves the world, too."

"The pope was reallyÉin touch with the youth that night," said Rausch. He had a smile on his face the whole night."

"It was just awesome to see the pope," added Ryan. "He was acting like one of the youth. I hardly ever see him smile, let alone singing songs."

"It was really amazing to see him," agreed Frieler. "You could look in his eyes and see that the youth rejuvenated him."

Spiritual significance
Ryan admitted that the idea of going to Italy originally attracted them to the trip. As the trip got closer and she learned about the things they would be doing, Ryan said she got excited about spiritual significance.

The trip helped her find a deeper meaning to Catholicism. Seeing so many people, from so many countries, renewed her Catholic faith.

Walking to the vigil, Rausch talked to people from Germany, Italy, Ireland, and even Papua New Guinea. In all, 146 countries were represented.

Pope John Paul II used up to five languages at the farewell mass. Rausch said it made you feel part of the world church to share mass with so many people from around the globe. Despite the language barriers, "Every single person knew what was going on because mass is the same," she added.

"I thought it was really powerful to see that we really are united," agreed Heinen. "We were from all over (the world) and we go to church for the same reason."

"I really liked meeting all the people," she added. "It was different to get to know people from all different backgrounds."

The World Youth Day 200 celebration ended on Sunday, Aug. 20, and the group flew home on Aug. 21.

This was the 15th World Youth Day. The event is normally held every two years, but was delayed by a year this time to coincide with the millennium. Holding it this year also meant that it was a holy year, which only happens every 25 years. This allowed the local group to walk through certain holy doors in basilicas at the Vatican, which would normally be shut.

A group from Paynesville last attended the World Youth Day when it was held in Denver in 1993. In 2002, it will be held in Toronto, and Rausch plans to bring a group from St. Louis Catholic Church.

Return to Archives