World Youth Day (WYD) : The experience of World Youth Day for French youth from Châlons en Champagne

châlons[France] Upon entering the large room where there were about fifteen severely handicapped persons, the three young people were silent.  At their side, Ralph, 34 years old, utters some words of explanation in English then continues the visit of “la Casa dos pobres” (the poor house), a residential facility for 150 patients run by the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul.

Arriving a few hours ago in Nova Friburg, city of 180,000 inhabitants, nestled in the mountains 150 km from Rio, 19 year old Marie-Élise, Armelle and Estelle, 20 years old, take a tour of the house where they will stay for the week with 15 other youth from their diocese.  In the large, high-ceilinged room, ageless grandmothers in large chairs laugh as the group passes by.

The region of Châlons-en Champagne, left the day before to go to Paris, then Brazil, already seemed far away when the three friends enter one of the therapy rooms of the Center.  It is tiled in white, with carpet mats, walkers, massage tables and large balls.  “Everything is clean, the people seem happy,” said Armelle simply.  “In order to stay here,” said Ralph, one of the managers of “la Casa”, “you have to work with love.”  “Here, we will put our religion into practice,” said Armelle, who couldn’t wait to be at the Center, “in the midst of poor people.”  Estelle is happy for the opportunity to see another country.  Her sister, Marie-Élise, a law student, quietly mentions their frail ninety-year old grandmother with whom they live in Châlons.  “This experience here can give us the strength and courage to take care of her each day,” says Estelle.  “The questions that I face in taking care of my grandmother,” says her sister, “on death, on the hereafter, come back to me here.”

It was through the intermediary of Sister Claire, Daughter of Charity, that this project came about.  “In 2011, after coming back from Madrid, we talked about the plan for the next World Youth Day and I suggested making contact with our Brazilian Sisters to allow a group to have an experience of charity,” she explained.  “Here the young people are so far from their own situation.  Being away from their daily experience can allow them to discover themselves.  Our job is to help them connect their faith, the spiritual experiences they will live next week around the Pope and with pilgrims around the world, along with the reality of those who are poor.  It is not just a human service but has an essential spiritual source.”

Why go to the other side of the world to make this discovery?  “I don’t know…” responds Clara, 24 years old.  A bit shy, this future nurse says she “rediscovered” her faith at her Confirmation in May, but sometimes her daily life prevents her from entering further into her spiritual life.  “I always tend to push away, I don’t dare get involved,” she explains.  She, who “never dared” to join the Order of Malta, whose posters she sees in her parish, expects much from this “first real experience of service,” without knowing exactly what its fruits will be.  The young woman says she was impressed when she arrived in this place, without hiding a bit of apprehension.  This was the one thing shared by each of the young people, the majority of whom had no experience with persons with handicapping conditions.

Like many, they came here to “meet,” “discuss,” “pray,” “to prepare for the second week of World Youth Day.”  “You never know what you will receive at the end of World Youth Day,” Father Pascal Boulic tells them when they had assembled after lunch on the synthetic turf of the soccer field in the middle of “la Casa”.  He is a priest from the community of Saint-Martin and chaplain of the group.  “The only thing God asks of us is to be open,” he says.

For Armelle, Marie-Élise and Estelle, their first concerns do not last long.  After their visit to the house they rejoin the little group that forms in the courtyard, carried away by the energetic Spanish pilgrims.  In this area, transformed into an open-air dance floor, the rhythmic music, which has been playing since two o’clock, makes both the residents and the pilgrims dance.  White veil on her head, leaning against a railing, Sister Denise smiled at the scene.  “They came with the spirit of giving of themselves.  This experience can change their faith,” said the 82 year old with sparkling eyes.  “They don’t know it yet, but their generosity is going to shake them up.”



La Croix Journal 18 July 2013

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