Surrounded by about 3 million Catholic youth, Natalie Mata couldn’t help feeling a part of something bigger than herself.
“It was incredible,” said Mata, a junior at Pinecrest Academy. “You saw everyone there for the same reason and it was just really powerful when you would all do things together because your faith isn’t only yours, it was everyone else’s too.”
Mata, along with a handful of other students from the private Catholic school in south Forsyth recently returned from the annual World Youth Day in Brazil.
The event drew youth from around the world to explore the country and their faith. It culminated with hearing Pope Francis speak to the millions gathered for Sunday Mass on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
“You don’t [normally] get to see so many young people on fire with the Lord and pretty excited about their faith,” said Lauren Downes, also a junior at Pinecrest.
“It was really cool to see all the other people there that are like you around the world. The language barrier wasn’t really a problem. You were automatically best friends with everyone you met.”
Downes said she was nervous at first to leave the country and be out of her comfort zone, adding that she “really had to put all my trust in Him.”
But for Pinecrest senior Yasmin Martins, Brazil is home. Though her family formerly lived on the opposite end of the country, Yasmin said she felt comfortable on the trip, even acting as a Portuguese translator for the Pinecrest contingent.
“They got to see my culture,” she said. “I got to show them the good foods.”
The girls spent many hours of their trip standing in lines to see the Pope, but the waiting was worthwhile to be just a few yards from the church’s leader.
“From the TV, my mom said it looked like a bunch of little ants in their ant farm, but being there it was so crazy,” Martins said.
“He talked about being authentic and just showing everybody you’re Christian and that it doesn’t have to be all words, like you can prove to people that you’re Christian by your actions.”
The Rev. Robert Presutti, who heads up Pinecrest, said the trip is an important religious experience for high school students.
“The Pope is the one of the most important moral voices in the world, not only for Catholics and not only for religious people,” Presutti said. “He speaks to all men and women of good will, and his message is an important one to consider, especially for our young people who are beginning to shape the future.
“For a Catholic young person, these World Youth Days are an experience of a church and faith that spans the globe, reaching into all languages, lands and cultures, capable of bringing about a unity amidst the diversities of humanity.”
The students returned from their weeklong trip earlier this week. Downes said she came back a more religious person, having shared the experience with so many other passionate youth.
“It was cool to see just how much joy there was in everyone’s heart on the trip and you could really look into everyone’s eyes and you could see Jesus in everyone,” she said. “It made my faith stronger.”
Mata said she went on the trip to get closer to her religion. Like the others from Pinecrest, she left feeling more connected.
“I really wanted to strengthen my faith,” she said. “I learned that no matter where you are, you can always make a connection with people by having something in common, especially with your faith.”