St. John’s Students and Administrator Recount Joyful World Youth Day Experience

August 25, 2023

A contingent of St. John’s University students and administrators made the pilgrimage to World Youth Day, returning with joyful stories of celebration, fellowship, and a renewed sense of what it means to be a young person deeply connected to their Catholic faith.

Established in 1986, World Youth Day is an international gathering in a city chosen by Pope Francis, who also attended. It brings together millions of young people to celebrate their faith and sense of belonging to the Church. Held August 1–6 in Lisbon, Portugal, 12 St. John’s students and two administrators attended.

The theme of this year’s event was based on the Bible verse, “Mary arose and went with haste,” which begins the account of Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. “This was the first World Youth Day in three years and was delayed because of the pandemic. The theme was especially relevant because it was long anticipated and everyone was so excited to be there,” recalled Sara Kurutz, a Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology major.

Pope Francis

Joliz Claudio, a graduate student majoring in Government and Politics, was motivated to attend World Youth Day to share her faith journey with other like-minded young people. “It was a privilege to walk with others who were at the same level as me,” she stressed.

“Something I hear a lot these days is that, as young people, we’re the future of Catholicism,” recalled Holly Gola, a graduate student majoring in Criminology and Justice.

Stefanie Scotto, a graduate student in the Master of Business Administration in Accounting program, said, “It was so beautiful to see almost two million young Catholics gathered together. On a Sunday, it’s hard to find one or two people your age at church. I really believe in the power of numbers and group prayer.”

Stefanie added that she has been searching for a way to revive the faith in people her age. “I wasn’t really sure how to do that. Just finding them is hard. I want to do something that has some sort of impact. After seeing the sheer volume of young people on this trip, you understood there are people our age and even younger with that fire. It gave me that push to continue to search for opportunities to spread the good news to young people. I have that fire in my heart now.”

“For me, attending World Youth Day was a dream come true,” explained Grace Lugo, also a Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology major. “Growing up I knew many kids who attended, telling me that I had to go. It’s surreal to be there.”

Visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima was a highlight of the experience, Grace stressed. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. The ability to connect with people from all around the world was so exciting for me.”

She added that she exchanged social media contacts with many pilgrims she met and has stayed in touch. “I enjoyed seeing their posts about events I attended and getting their perspective.”

Sara loved seeing Pope Francis up close. “I’ve seen him before, but when you go to Rome he’s pretty far away. I tell people I could see the wrinkles in his face,” she laughed.

One custom of World Youth Day, she explained, is giving gifts to fellow pilgrims. “Even if you don’t know the language, everyone is still communicating. We brought little stickers with the Statue of Liberty on them and American key chains. People were so excited when they saw we came from New York.”

For Stefanie, the highlight of the trip was the candlelight vigil where they prayed the rosary at Fatima. “We were kneeling in front of the shrine and praying the rosary together in about 10 to 15 languages. We prayed in so many different languages and split up the decades. The group started the decade in English, and then switched to French, and then the next decade would start in Italian, and then finish in Portuguese, and it would keep going and going. We got through so many languages.”

Caitlin Sullivan, a student from the School of Law, noted that the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima is very special to her family. “The vigil and processing to the grotto was such a highlight. Getting to know people from different countries was incredible. We were all having this wonderful shared experience.”

Grace recalled a special moment when she and some fellow students were stopped on the walk back to their hotel by two elderly Portuguese women. “They had to be in their 90s, and were asking why so many young people were in their town. When we told them Pope Francis was there, they started crying and asked us to pray for them.”

Dana Livingston ’21C, ’22G, Director of Vincentian Service and Social Justice, recalled a photo taken of Grace and Stefanie, who were moved to tears after seeing Pope Francis. “In that photo, I felt like I could see a brightness in their faces just from seeing the Vicar of Christ. That was one incredible moment among many.”