Alice Christofi offers memories of the Anglican World Youth Encounter

World Youth Day is an international gathering of young people, held every few years, aiming to draw people together from across borders, uniting hearts and minds in Christ. This summer the event was hosted by Rio de Janeiro, with the theme ‘Go make disciples of all nations.’ During my semester studying in Italy, the opportunity to represent St Mark’s Florence and the Diocese in Europe at the event was the last thing I expected, but I could not possibly refuse. The idea of a parallel encounter for young members of the Anglican Communion was the brain child of Fr Nicholas Wheeler and Daniel Cabral, aiming to bring young people together to reflect on what it is to be a young Anglican today, as well as to take part ecumenically in the key events of the World Youth Days.
Not really knowing what to expect, I boarded the plane at Madrid airport with hundreds of other pilgrims. Although faced with a long slog across the Atlantic Ocean, spirits were high: guitars and tambourines were pulled out and chanting and singing filled the cabin. Ten hours later, a mighty cheer erupted as we touched down at Rio de Janeiro. The adventure had begun, and everyone aboard knew that something wonderful was about to happen.

Multifaceted identity

We were welcomed with great warmth by our Brazilian hosts, being housed in groups within three of the nine Anglican parishes in the city. The week really felt like it had kicked off with our welcome celebration and worship at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer; the first opportunity to meet the other delegates representing the UK, Europe, United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa, as well as many young people representing other parts of Brazil and the parishes of Rio de Janeiro.

The nature of our gathering meant that I was made very aware of the diverse and multifaceted identity of the Anglican Communion, in spite of our different backgrounds and traditions. Our exploration of what it means to be a young Anglican continued through the week with time for discussion, prayer and reflection. Sharing our experiences, we discovered that as young people we shared many of the same challenges in our respective church communities, despite the distances between them, and were able to share ideas on how to resolve these problems.

Joyful reception

In those first few days, from the first glimpses of the crowds walking through the city centre, at the Metropolitan Cathedral, queuing for catechesis and at the Opening Mass, it was clear the whole city had been gripped by the infectious spirit of the pilgrims. The event was attended by Pope Francis, whose arrival was eagerly anticipated by the many pilgrims lining the streets hoping to catch a glimpse as he drove by, undeterred by the winter rain. On his first trip abroad following his election in March, the Pope was joyfully received, and responded with his characteristic warmth and energy, both as he led worship at the World Youth Days, and also in his visits to hospitals and social projects in the area throughout the week.

Our own encounter with the various social and missionary projects taking place in the city was an equally important part of the week. We spent a day in our host parishes: for myself and my American roommate, this meant a morning visiting a drop-in centre for the homeless run by Emeritus Bishop Celso Franco de Oliveira – where visitors could wash and share a meal three days a week – and then an afternoon with an art therapy group for women victims of violence. We also heard about the work of the Anglican Church in celebrating a mass on the streets for the many homeless people turned away from regular churches.

Message of hope

Most challenging of all was the day later in the week spent in the Cidade de Deus – an area of great poverty hidden far out of the glorious city centre. For many members of the group this was the first time we had come face to face with a community such as this: I was not really sure what to expect from this encounter. Starting the day with prayer in Fr Nicholas’ parish church of Cristo Rei, we saw in the immediate area around the church the work taking place; in their creation of an Anglican space at the heart of the community, the team works with engaging the local community in mural projects, gardening and provides unfortunately limited space for several support groups. As we moved further from the church into a neighbourhood of more extreme poverty, the extent of the work remaining in this place quickly became clear: walking amidst the rows of shacks on the seemingly ironically named ‘Avenue of Hope’ we met many of the locals.

Rodrigo Santos, pastoral assistant at Cristo Rei, explained to me the difficulties of his work in this parish, and the importance of making the presence of Christ and his love known among the people. Yet there was a great deal more hope in the hearts of the people than I think any of us could have imagined: as we were walking back to the bus stop, a woman burst from her home to greet the bedraggled pilgrim group, raising her arms in prayer and singing ‘Glory to God’. We were welcomed by one of Fr Nicholas’ parishioners – Maria – for coffee in her home. We were blown away by her hospitality, and the extreme efforts she went to put on the spread she did. From these encounters in particular, I have taken away a strong sense of the importance of our work as a Church in proclaiming our Gospel message through word and action. The message of hope and salvation in Christ seemed all the more pertinent in a place such as this.

Copacabana beach

With all that we had already shared, and with all that was about to come, the atmosphere only intensified when we came to the weekend. Following a trip up to the mountains on the Friday morning, we made our way down to a crammed Copacabana beach for Stations of the Cross, led by the Pope. Sitting on the beach, watching the procession on the many screens and with our ears filled with the drums and singing, Christ’s final hours were presented in a startlingly dramatic way, instantly setting the tone for a weekend of unforgettable and heartbreaking worship.

A cheeky trip to the beach on the Saturday morning again gave us something of a flavour of what was to come that evening. As we battled our way to the sea, already pilgrims were setting up camp in their millions, with flags draped around their shoulders or billowing in the breeze. By the time night fell, and we made our way back to the beach, some two million young people were gathered on the beach for a vigil of prayer.

With performers recalling the journey of St Francis of Assisi, and focusing on the theme of building a church, we listened to testimonies of young people whose lives had been changed through their faith and how they could contribute to building the church. Finally, Pope Francis took the stage. With his engaging and energetic preaching, he incited each and every person sat on the sand before him to be a ‘living stone and to build up the church of Christ.’ Prayers and singing ensued in a myriad of different tongues, and the service ended with Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Even with millions knelt there in the sand we were enveloped in a breathtaking silence, broken only by the distant crashing of waves.

We returned to the beach the next morning for the Closing Mass – ten among some 3.5 million. If we had thought the atmosphere the night before had been electric, the joy and excitement that Sunday morning were off the scale. With many of the pilgrims having camped out the night before, and thousands more steadily piling onto the beach, finding a spot was even more of a challenge.

Final celebration

Pope Francis again preached passionately on the call to make disciples, offering to the millions gathered around him three simple ideas: ‘go’, ‘do not be afraid’, ‘serve’. Sharing the peace and the Eucharist in such an environment was a very powerful and moving experience. After the excitement of this closing celebration, our final Eucharist shared together on the Monday evening in the basement of the Anglican Cathedral felt a humble but pleasantly peaceful celebration, with a more reflective tone. Our time of sharing our experiences of the week, and our farewell party was shared with the 122 Catholic Argentineans who were camping in the Cathedral for the week: this made for a wonderful end to the week.

Inspiring and challenging

Returning to Italy, and eventually the UK after this experience, I knew that things could not possibly go ‘back to normal’. Sharing this journey with such a wonderful group of people has been the most incredible experience, and I hope that more young people are inspired to take part in future Youth Days, or are able to take part in equivalent encounters. To have been part of such a powerful statement of our living and renewing faith as that final Mass on Copacabana beach, and to have found Christ in so many people, and such diverse situations as in those two weeks is something that will never leave me. In these ten days I have been inspired and challenged, I have laughed and cried in the company of millions of other young people who will all return to their countries, dioceses, parishes reinvigorated in their faith, with hearts and minds opened and with a fresh zeal to proclaim the Gospel and to ‘go make disciples’.

I left Rio de Janeiro with lasting memories, new friends, and a renewed hope in the church we are building. I suppose the greatest thing I have brought back with me is a deeper understanding of the call to ‘go make disciples’, and greater courage to answer that call. We all have something to bring to the building of Christ’s Church, whatever our specific vocation may be. Rio has indeed been life changing in ways I could never have predicted. Although sad it was all over, I left with much excitement in the continued work which lay ahead. This was not the end, only the beginning. ND