A group of 15 students at Pinecrest Academy recently met thousands of other young Catholics from around the world.
Lead by several adult chaperones, the teenagers visited Madrid, Spain, from Aug. 17-21 to take part in World Youth Day.
Began in 1985 by Pope John Paul II, the weeklong event is open to all youth from around the world who wish to deepen their relationship with Christ.
It is held every two to three years, each time in a different country.
The gatherings draw as many as 2 million people from all over the globe, according to Web sites.
For the Pinecrest students and their chaperones, it was exciting to meet so many people with similar viewpoints.
"The best thing for me was being able to be around people my age with the same beliefs," student Sophia Gracia said. "You realize that faith is alive in youth today, despite what is depicted in the media much of the time."
Gabriel Lewis, a teacher at Pinecrest who is training to become a priest, was one of the local chaperones.
"Everyone was so joyful and cheerful all the time," Lewis said. "No one cared that everywhere was packed. It was amazing to see the friendly, enthusiastic spirit everyone had."
Conditions were less than luxurious, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of those in attendance.
The Pinecrest students slept either inside a school with no air conditioning or outside in a large field.
"It was either freezing cold or burning up hot," said Ansley Heard.
Gracia added that at times it was difficult to get water, due to the high volume of people.
But the experience isn’t about comforts, said one of their chaperones, Sofia Lobeira.
"It’s a pilgrimage," Lobeira. "You go for the experiences of prayer, learning about your faith and growing in your friendship with Christ."
Teresa Petros, mother of four of the 13 girls from Pinecrest who attended, also made the trip as a chaperone.
"I think they learned that you can still live with joy, hope and faith, while at the same time depriving yourself of some material things," Petros said.
Jack Fain, one of just two boys from the school who made the trip, said a highlight for him was a session where young men asked questions of Catholic leaders.
"There were a couple thousand kids up into their 20s and we got to ask the Cardinals of Madrid questions of faith and where they believe the church is in this century," Fain said. "Hearing answers from cardinals and bishops from around the world was pretty amazing."
Lewis said he most enjoyed a Mass just for men in seminary.
"It was very special to see thousands and thousands of other young men who are all studying to be priests," he said.
A highlight of the experience for both students and chaperones alike was seeing and hearing Pope Benedict XVI.
At one point, several of the students were within a few feet of him.
"It was very moving," Gracia said. "One girl was even crying."
The Catholic leader celebrated a large-scale Mass one evening, which the students and chaperones found inspiring.
"The pope was thanking us for coming and telling us how proud he was of us," Lobeira said.
Added Lewis, "He told us to be missionaries out in the world and spread the word of our faith. It was amazing to have that decree directly from the pope."
The trip was one none will soon forget.
"It’s nice to be back home in your comfy bed, but you still want to be there too," Lewis said. "But you have to wait another two or three years to go again."
Petros noted how the current generation is used to "instant gratification with access to technology 24/7, and never being denied anything."
"So it was nice to see them sacrifice and prove to the world that faith, Christ and the truth mean so much to them," she said.