The more than 200 pilgrims from Brooklyn and Queens walked over six miles with provisions and sleeping bags, alongside pilgrims from all around the world, for the overnight vigil on Copacabana beach.
The site was moved to the beach because the original vigil site was flooded. Diocesan leaders were receiving conflicting reports of whether the pilgrims would be allowed to remain on the beach through the night or if they would have to return to their hotels and walk to Copacabana once again in the morning.
Benedict Joson, 22, from St. Sebastian parish, said he did not know what to expect from the walk. Once he started, he said it was difficult, but the sites were beautiful and the atmosphere uplifting.
“There was a lot of affirmation especially from the locals who met us along the way and the pilgrims from around the world,” he said.
The youngsters walked on a closed highway following the diocesan flag so as not to get lost among the other three million people. In order to keep their energy up, the pilgrims cheered and sang along the way. When they began to show signs of drowsiness, locals or other pilgrims chanted “USA!” to lift their spirits.
Once they reached their destination, they found it tightly packed with pilgrims speaking in many different languages. After carefully stepping around sleeping bags, they eventually found a spot by a TV Jumbotron.
However, the spot was close to the water, and the tide was coming in, bringing the water dangerously close to their belongings.
The youth jumped into action after deciding that their best hopes of staying dry for the night was to build sand trenches to block the water.
“It’s literally been punches left and right,” said pilgrim Diana Arrega, 19, from St. Joseph Co-Cathedral, who spent two hours helping build the trench. “You expect one thing, and the circumstances are completely different…It’s up to us to overcome it. I actually enjoyed the entire experience, not knowing what’s going to happen next because it’s an excitement life brings you.”
She said that although the building was exhausting, it brought the pilgrims closer together. One experience that Arrega said she came to appreciate was standing for hours to see the pope and missing him, twice. The first time, she waited for five hours and only got a glimpse of his head. The second time, she waited two hours and did not see him at all.
For the vigil, the pope arrived by popemobile. This time, Arrega waited only 20 minutes and was able to catch him smiling.
“I actually think I prefer this one to Madrid (World Youth Day 2011) because after all the struggles, this moment was worth it,” she said.
Karen Quiroz-Muñoz, 19, also from St. Joseph Co-Cathedral, experienced similar hardships trying to catch a glimpse of the pope. During the vigil, she saw signs that the popemobile was coming, but this time she did not wait for the pontiff with the others because she was discouraged by her past experience. Instead, she went souvenir shopping and ended up being on the pope’s path. This time, she not only saw the pontiff, she experienced a very Pope Francis moment.
“I think that since I didn’t try to record, I enjoyed the moment 10 times more,” she said. “Then, a couple of feet in front of us, the popemobile stopped, and the pope started kissing everyone’s flags. It was phenomenal.”
Quiroz-Muñoz said the experience has been invaluable.
“I learned to stop planning and just go with it,” she said. “The most unexpected things bring you the most happiness.”
“What I appreciated the most of the overnight at Copacabana was the energy that was generated, seeing the dancing/praying combination with the devotion and contemplation,” Joson said. “I observed a lot of people in tune with their faith and God, and I could see they were very emotional.”
In the evening, Pope Francis led the youth in Eucharistic adoration. He knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, and three million pilgrims knelt behind him. The beach fell silent with the exception of the waves breaking along the Atlantic coastline.
After the excitement of seeing Pope Francis and a generally exhausting week, pilgrims from the diocese fell asleep surrounded by their fellow pilgrims from around the world.