Faith, similarities unite local teens with friends from around the world

Pilgrims wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at the World Youth Day welcome ceremony on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro July 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (July 26, 2013) See POPE-COPACABANA July 26, 2013, and POPE-BEACHJAM July 26, 2013.
Pilgrims wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at the World Youth Day welcome ceremony on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro July 25. CNS photo by Paul Haring.

by Jessica Langdon
jessica.langdon@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Stories that make headlines from around the globe all too often scream of divisions and countries at war.

Yet when people from around the world came together to celebrate World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, all Jackie Meister saw in the massive crowd surrounding her was unity.

“People can live all over the world, but we’re all the same,” said Meister, a member of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park.

She will be a senior in the fall at Notre Dame de Sion High School in Kansas City, Mo., and it was through Sion that she embarked on this trip along with five other students and two adult chaperones.

The group spent two weeks in Brazil, first uniting with close to 20 schools from different countries that share the Sion name and bond.

Through just that experience, the girls — including several from parishes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas — sparked friendships they know will easily cross the miles and span decades.

“A number of the girls are already talking about going back to Brazil to stay with their friends in Rio, too,” said Jennifer Campbell, library media specialist at Sion, who chaperoned the trip.

She responded within 30 seconds when an email went to Sion faculty members asking if they would like to serve as chaperones on this journey to Brazil for the International Sion Youth Meeting.

“Lots of other faculty were interested and willing to go,” said Campbell, who was selected along with Bill Ray, a teacher at the grade school. “I’m not 100 percent sure why I was lucky enough to be one of the chosen chaperones, but I am grateful that I was.”

The group — which also included Cat Ancona of Church of the Nativity Parish in Leawood; Kirsten Rasmussen and Abby Snyder, both parishioners of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood; Maddy Lewing of Lee’s Summit, Mo.; and Sydney Manning, a member of St. Thomas More Church in Kansas City, Mo. — left for Brazil in mid-July, knowing this would be an adventure of a lifetime.

One thing that struck Campbell right away was “their excited willingness to go along with whatever.”

And they did just that, even when the circumstances called for unplanned changes — like when their housing assignment for World Youth Day didn’t work out and the group returned to the Sion facility where they’d spent the first leg of the trip.

“We knew going out there that we were going to be sleeping on floors and a lot of the trip was open-ended, and the girls never complained,” said Campbell.

She was also thrilled to see new bonds forming among the girls, who had not all known each other well when they set out.

They returned as close friends.

One of the highlights of the trip was traveling to see the famed, large Christ the Redeemer statue.

“Not only is the statue unbelievably amazing, the view of Rio de Janeiro from up there was unbelievable,” said Campbell. “They also have the Our Father on display around the base of the statue in about 10 different languages, which was just a neat added part of the experience.”

They attended a Mass with a bishop from Nigeria and took part in the pilgrimage to Copacabana beach on the last night.

“I’ve never been part of something that big before,” said Meister of the crowd of three million people. “We can all come together and unite. We are all tied together by our faith.”

It really highlighted the “universal” definition of Catholicism.

“There were not very many Americans,” Meister noticed. “I was expecting to see more American flags waving around.”

But they saw flags from many other countries, and it was exciting to meet different groups and to listen to them sing and watch them dance.

Everyone had something to share about the ways they celebrate their faith.

The atmosphere was welcoming to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, said Meister.

The group took pictures and shared their experiences with many young people who were curious about life in America.

They watched the final Mass with Pope Francis on a screen back where they were staying, which worked out well, said Meister, because they weren’t standing on a cold beach and they got to listen to it and read subtitles. She got a lot out of it.

Before Meister left for Rio, she didn’t know how much she would have in common with teenagers from Brazil and other countries, but now she knows that they share so much.

“Everybody there was so welcoming,” she said. “It’s like we’re family because we all have our faith in common.”

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