Tricia Murphy and other members of St. Albert's Holy Family Parish make their way to the WYD vigil July 27 in Rio de Janeiro.
Regardless of their country of origin, nationality, culture or language, young people from around the world gathered at World Youth Day in Brazil with the same objective in mind: to be filled with the love that only God can give.
"Seeing the faces of the different nations, just being together with them and loving the Lord, it was inspiring for me," said Kristen Mineault, a young woman from Holy Trinity Parish in Spruce Grove/Stony Plain.
"I feel forever united through them in my prayers and my thoughts. Hearing their stories of what it's like in their countries certainly put everything in perspective for me."
Nine people from her parish went to World Youth Day, a worldwide encounter with the pope which is typically celebrated every three years in a different host nation. This year's event was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from July 23-28.
"World Youth Day is such a big part of my life, so I definitely encourage others to attend because it's a life-changing experience," said Mineault, who also attended the 2011 WYD in Madrid.
"You never come back the same. You suffer, but through the suffering you come out with so much joy. Your spirit is on fire, and you just want to spread the Gospel to everyone."
In Rio, Mineault met with pilgrims from the United States, South Africa, Brazil, Holland and the Philippines. With Facebook and other social media, she said she can stay connected with these newfound "friends for life."
Overall, the experience exceeded her expectations.
"We had two host families, and they took us in like we were family. The culture there was so welcoming. When they hugged you, you felt so much love," said Mineault.
This year's World Youth Day theme was taken from Matthew 28.19: "Go and make disciples of all nations." The theme summons young people to take a call to mission, living as witnesses to the risen Christ.
Instead of the usual Days in the Diocese, more than 50 pilgrims from the Edmonton Archdiocese enjoyed a missionary week together.
Once in Rio, they grew closer to Christ, through prayer and the sacraments, together with thousands of other young people.
"There was a silence that you heard when everyone was praying and kneeling, when 3.7 million people were all quiet, and that was just amazing," said Mineault.
For Tricia Murphy, who led a contingent of a dozen pilgrims from Holy Family Parish in St. Albert, seeing the pope close-up was a highlight - even though she had to wait five hours to see him.
"It was exciting seeing Pope Francis and his charisma. People would throw their hats, and he'd bless the hats and give them back," said Murphy.
She also enjoyed meeting people from other countries.
Local pilgrims were accompanied by priests, including Fathers Matthew Hysell and Michael Schumacher.
"We definitely made some friends and got to know a lot about other countries. Even just talking about their faith and their youth in their own churches was really cool," said Murphy.
Like any pilgrimage, there were hardships to be faced, such as waiting two hours to access a deplorable portable toilet, waiting in long lineups for food and sleeping outside on Copacabana Beach. They often gave their free food away to hungry street people and then bought food for themselves elsewhere.
"It was good that we weren't living in luxury because it was a pilgrimage, but it was very trying at the same time," said Murphy.
Since every World Youth Day is unique, Murphy is already eager to attend the next one in 2016. It will be hosted by Krakow, Poland, the city where Blessed John Paul II lived.
"Being in Brazil, I've never seen so many people living on the streets, and that was very prominent. I want to go again because I want to see what World Youth Day Poland will bring forward," Murphy told the WCR.
While being near Pope Francis was a highlight for many pilgrims, Father Matthew Hysell, from St. Theresa's Parish in Edmonton, said his most poignant experience was "waiting for five and a half hours in line to get our pilgrims' backpacks.
"The line ran through some of the slums in Rio, and that gave me plenty of time to reflect on the role of Christians in our solidarity with the poor," said Hysell.
The young priest was assigned to lead the St. Thomas More pilgrims. They partnered with the pilgrims from St. Theresa's Parish under the leadership of Father Michael Schumacher as well as Wetaskiwin's Sacred Heart Parish with Father Marc Cramer.
Talks by Pope Francis and local Oblates on Christian responsibility to the poor gave Hysell much food for thought. "Now I am faced with the task of figuring out how I can exercise my priesthood for the poor," he said.
Candace Jones, from Wetaskiwin, said the morning catechesis sessions were highlights for her. The sessions were engaging, interactive and interesting.
"It was fascinating to me to be part of something so small in the grand scheme of the World Youth Day event that was so powerful," said Jones.
On Saturday, July 27, they slept on Copacabana Beach as part of the vigil. They fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing and when they awoke in the morning, the beach was lined with other Catholic youth, all of them there for the same reason, called by God.
"It made me feel joyful because I could see that I am not alone in life as a Catholic woman," she said. Having Mass with millions of other Catholics from all around the world and the pope "was the most incredible way to end the journey."
"For me, World Youth Day renewed my faith in the world and showed me that as a Catholic I have a huge family and an amazing leader guiding me and walking alongside me," said Jones.
However, she cautions people who are thinking about going. She did not get the spiritual boost she anticipated. She suggests going with few expectations, but being open to anything God has to reveal.
Jones described the pope as a friendly inspirational man, who is reminiscent of a loving, caring grandpa.
"I like that he is so active and challenges the world and follows through on what he says instead of just preaching," said Jones.
Wade Malin, another pilgrim from Wetaskiwin, said of the pope, "He radiates positive energy and seemed full of energy in general."
Malin said that one challenge was trying to order food when he has allergies and no one spoke the same language. As well, he observed motorists driving incredibly fast and crazy.
"Brazilian drivers drive like they are the only people on the road, even on a crowded street," said Malin.
The pilgrims were warned about the large crowds and chaos, and that's exactly what they saw.
"The chaos that encompasses World Youth Day created an atmosphere of confusion at times, and left little time for spiritual soul embellishment," said Malin.
A World Youth Day at Home was held July 26-28 at Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre in Cochrane. Known as One Rock, the Catholic festival event attracted young adults and their families from Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
Six bishops, various speakers and Christian musicians led three days of music, praise, worship, inspirational talks, breakout sessions and a dramatization of the Stations of the Cross.