Seminarian Mathew Stephens, a native of the Mission of Christ the King, in Bunker, MO, didn’t plan on assuming any kind of leadership role among pilgrims to World Youth Day in Madrid.
It’s sometimes how you say things that makes all the difference.
After getting permission to miss a few days of school, Mathew and his sister, Bethany, decided to make the pilgrimage together.
Neither regretted it.
“Over 2 million people from all over the world–all there for the same purpose,” said Mathew, a junior at Conception Seminary College in northwestern Missouri. “It’s just astounding to really see.”
“It was a great time,” said Bethany, a high-school senior. “It was completely and totally awesome.”
“When you go out on to that air field and everyone is sleeping on the ground, it’s like spending the night with 2 million of your closest friends,” said Mathew. “There were some disagreements, and we didn’t all speak the same language, but we were all there for the same reason–to grow in our faith and participate in the universality of the Church.”
Their group incorporated World Youth Day into a pilgrimage to Portugal and Spain, including the Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua in Lisbon; sites in Fatima relating to the 1917 apparitions of the Blessed Mother; the cathedrals in Granada and Madrid; and a Capuchin Convent where newly-beatified Blessed Leopold is entombed.
Mathew said he originally thought getting to see the pope would be enough, but other stops made the eventual sighting of the Vicar of Christ all the more meaningful.
“He’s the supreme pontiff, the heir to St. Peter–you could say he’s God’s right hand on earth,” Mathew said. “Who wouldn’t want to see him and get to meet the people from all around the world and see how universal the faith is?”
And they did get to see him, as the “Popemobile” passed by the hostel where they were staying in Madrid.
Seminarians for the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau are required to study Spanish. So whenever the group would split up, several people would say to Mathew, “You speak Spanish. I’m not going anywhere without you.”
He had known that his language skills would come in handy, but he hadn’t anticipated to what extent.
“Especially if we got into a tight spot or there was a missed translation or something, I wound up taking charge and helping out,” he said.
Bethany said she especially enjoyed getting to know the other pilgrims in her group, seeing the Holy Father pass by in his “Popemobile,” and experiencing the beauty of the churches and the tremendous faith of the people she encountered.
“Oh, the history of the Church over there! They have so much history!” said Bethany.
“I will also definitely remember the heat,” she added.
Mathew acknowledged that traveling to another country brings its share of inconveniences and minor annoyances.
“These little things help you along your path to becoming a better person, growing closer to Christ,” he said. “As our guide kept telling us, ‘It’s all P.O.P.E.: Part Of the Pilgrimage Experience!’
“We weren’t there to be comfortable,” he noted. “We were there to grow in our faith and grow closer to God.”
And that, said Mathew, is exactly what happened.
Bethany said she’s not sure whether she will be in Rio de Janeiro in two years, but she “might definitely have to go” to another World Youth Day some day.
‘The people you meet’
Being a seminarian often means never being far from friends.
Mathew crossed paths in Fatima with one of his classmates and a Conception alum who was a senior during his freshman year.
In Madrid, he encountered two more classmates, as well as a Conception senior and three other Conception graduates.
“That was a neat surprise,” he said. “Out of 2 million people, you don’t expect to run into eight guys you know from 3,000 miles away!”
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