Oblate Father Roman Majek blesses 80 young people from Edmonton's Polish Holy Rosary Parish who will attend World Youth Day in Madrid.
Hundreds of excited young people in the Edmonton Archdiocese are getting ready for the journey of their lifetime.
Close to 500 young pilgrims from 30 different groups will be travelling to Madrid, Spain, in mid-August to take part in World Youth Day. Archbishop Richard Smith and a handful of priests will also take part in the youth event.
"The response has been incredible by the parishes," said Andrew Papenbrock of the office of Youth Evangelization. "We rock. I think our numbers are one of the highest (of any diocese) in Canada."
About 300 young people from the archdiocese attended the last World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in July 2008.
For the past few months the pilgrims have been busy fundraising within their communities and preparing themselves spiritually for the journey. Some parishes with few participants have joined with larger ones to face the task. A few groups are volunteering with social service agencies as part of their preparation.
"Slowly (the pilgrimage is) becoming what it should be: an opportunity to build community," Papenbrock said.
Young people are excited about World Youth Day because they see it as theirs, he said. "And I think they respond (in such great numbers) because they have the support here. This is part of what we do here for our young adults. It's not just a trip to a certain spot; it's something ongoing."
There is financial support from the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Women's League but young people, as part of their preparation, are organizing dinners, dances, silent auctions and mowing lawns to raise funds for World Youth Day.
"They have been very creative in what they have been doing for the fundraising," Papenbrock said. "The list is long."
World Youth Day officially starts Aug. 16 but many of the Edmonton groups will be travelling to the Diocese of Malaga a week ahead to participate in a five-day youth encounter called Days in the Diocese. On Aug. 15 the pilgrims will travel together to Madrid to participate in the main event.
World Youth Day begins Aug. 16 with a Mass in Madrid's Cibeles Square, presided over by the archbishop of Madrid and concelebrated by the bishops and priests participating in WYD. The event wraps up Aug. 21 with a Mass with Pope Benedict.
"I'm very excited to go to World Youth Day to represent the Portuguese community," said 27-year-old Igor Raposo, one of four young people from Our Lady of Fatima Parish who will attend the event.
"I'm looking forward to being in communion with young people from many different cultures of the world that believe in the same things that I do. It's going to be an adventure."
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park is sending 10 young people and one priest to the event.
Despite a late start, the group has already raised enough to cover tickets and expenses. They have babysat, raked leaves, painted people's doors and fences, and done all sort of jobs for parishioners to raise funds for the journey.
A week ago they had a dinner/dance and silent auction. And at the end of the month, they will have a plant sale in the church's parking lot.
"We are very excited to be able to go to Spain and celebrate and learn about our faith with other people who are just like us from all over the world," said group leader Katherine Lucki.
More than 80 young people from Holy Rosary (Polish) Parish will make the pilgrimage to Spain. That's more than double the 35 youth who went Australia in 2008.
"Everybody is excited about World Youth Day here," said Sister Natalia Kieltyka, the WYD coordinator.
Kieltyka said the number of participants grew steadily as young people invited their friends to WYD meetings and activities. Although most of Holy Rosary's pilgrims are Polish, young people of other nationalities - China, Croatia, Germany, Ukraine - have also joined the group.
The main attraction is Pope John Paul II, who established World Youth Day, Kieltyka said. "The spirit of John Paul II, I would say, is very much alive among our youth."
At Holy Rosary, young people prepare spiritually for World Youth Day through catechesis, Scripture readings and discussion groups. But fundraising activities at the parish is the parents' responsibility.
On May 15 the parish celebrated a special send-off Mass for WYD participants as various members of the group are currently travelling to Europe to participate in dance competitions and other events.
St. Thomas More Parish in Edmonton's southwest joined forces with Our Lady of Fatima in north Edmonton and St. Anthony's Parish in Lloydminster to make a bigger group. Together the three parishes are sending 21 pilgrims to Madrid, including a priest from each parish.
"People are getting more and more excited," said Monica Bober, the WYD leader at St. Thomas More.
"From what I see and hear they want (to participate in World Youth Day) to deepen their relationship with Christ so they know him better and love him better.
"Another very important reason why they are going is to share their faith with people from all over the world in one place and have the pope there to meet with them."
Bober said the group has been meeting monthly for a year and a half to plan fundraising and prepare spiritually. About a year ago the group hosted a pasta supper to raise funds. Later it sold hamburgers at a supermarket and last fall it held a religious art sale at the church.
In the days ahead, as part of their preparation for WYD, the pilgrims of St. Thomas More and Our Lady of Fatima will be collecting vacuums and microwaves in good working condition and then distributing them to the poor.