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Young Catholic Pilgrims Feel Embrace of the Global Church

Gathering: Youths from California meet counterparts from 169 other countries.


TORONTO — During a Mass this week here at World Youth Day, Mayra Giallo extended her hand as a sign of peace--the custom in her Southern California parish--to a handsome young Frenchman next to her.

"He grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks," the 22-year-old Cal State Northridge student from La Puente said, blushing. "I was like, let's do that again!"

But Giallo quickly said adieu to her new friend because she, like hundreds of other Southern California Catholics, had more weighty reasons for making the pilgrimage to World Youth Day, a weeklong event that feels like a combination of Woodstock, the Olympics and an old-fashioned revival meeting headlined by Pope John Paul II.

The Southern Californians wanted to experience Catholicism's global reach, to deepen their faith and to see John Paul in person before he dies.

"I had to see the pope, to see a living saint," said Elena Medina, a 27-year-old from La Puente who carried with her a handful of prayers--for health, for a financial reversal, for leniency for a jailed son--that had been scrawled on paper by friends and family members.

Some of the travelers to Canada are outside of California for the first time, an added bonus.

"To think someone like me can actually get out of Los Angeles and see the pope--I've never been on a plane before," said Glenda Garcia, a 17-year-old Fairfax High School senior who had joined more than 200,000 other Catholics from 170 countries in Toronto. "And I've never seen so many trees."

She, like many of the young pilgrims, comes from a working-class, immigrant family that couldn't underwrite the trip, which may cost more than $2,200. But through entrepreneurial efforts--baby-sitting, and holding raffles, car washes and charity dances--many participants earned their way. Others had received partial scholarships from their churches or dioceses.

Glenda's revenue-generating battle cry was "Avon calling." She had sold lipstick, makeup and lotions to school friends, church members and her family for the last year.

"My mom bought a lot, even though she really doesn't use it," Glenda said. "She just wanted to make sure I could go."

The Avon fund-raising technique had been devised by Sister Karen Collier, who heads an 88-member World Youth Day delegation from the Los Angeles archdiocese. She became an Avon representative and then deputized interested Catholic youths to sell the products, allowing them to keep both their commissions and hers.

In Toronto, the Catholics have made sure they get their money's worth. Most get up for early morning Masses and don't fall asleep until well after midnight. In between, they attend religious classes run by cardinals and bishops and go to confession at open-air booths set up in parks. They visit (and sometimes flirt with) fellow believers from far-off countries, exchanging decorative pins or e-mail addresses with people from China, Finland and Brazil.

They throw Frisbees, wave their countries' flags and exchange native snacks.

And they hold impromptu dances and musical concerts on the street. The 300-member group from Our Lady of the Pillar in Santa Ana is especially popular, merrily blasting out songs in Spanish, accompanied by an army of guitars, tambourines, bongos and a tinny portable sound system.

"At night, when you finally get to bed, you get chills about everything you've seen and done," said Priscilla Scaff, a 16-year-old from Costa Mesa. "It's like a dream."

For two of Southern California's local prelates, the vision of hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic young Catholics gathering to cheer for the church and John Paul ("John Paul Two, we love you!") is heavenly, especially after the church sex scandal that has rocked the U.S. and their dioceses this year.

"It's demonstrating to me the deep faith young people have in our church," said Tod D. Brown, the bishop of Orange, before he said a special Mass on Friday in a hotel ballroom for more than 700 pilgrims from Orange County. "And the special charisma that the pope has to bring young people together."

Says Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles: "This reinvigorates their faith, and the pope's presence really, really launched that spirit."

The young Catholics find little to complain about, even though many of them are experiencing the spartan life often associated with religious journeys: hoofing it for miles to event sites, grabbing food where they can and sleeping on church floors.

Tonight, Candy Contreras, 16, will sleep with her friends in sleeping bags in the city park where a papal Mass will be said Sunday. The service is expected to draw 1 million people.

"There will be so many nations out there, but only one God," the Santa Ana resident said. "We'll always be singing and dancing."

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