World Youth Day gives Alaska teens a ‘powerful faith experience’


World Youth Day is set for Jan. 22-27 in Panama, and Alaska teens, young adults, parents and others are making final preparations: everything from vaccinations and fundraisers, to mosquito nets and spiritual preparation.

With support of the Anchorage Archdiocese, Bob McMorrow of St. Benedict Church and Theresa Austin of Holy Cross Church are hard at work coordinating last-minute details to make the trip successful.

“Looking at the ages of pilgrims gives us some interesting insights into the value of World Youth Day,” McMorrow observed.

“We have 76 pilgrims attending — 45 of those are high school-aged youth, 17 are parents of pilgrims, 1 is a priest, and five are youth ministers,” he observed. “That leaves us with 8 young adults aged 19 to 35.”

McMorrow said World Youth Day is a great value for youth and their families.

While the numbers of Alaska pilgrims typically lean more heavily toward teen and parent participants, World Youth Day provides a unique opportunity for the Alaskan demographic.

“Over the years, World Youth Day has become a family pilgrimage with many parents joining their teens,” McMorrow observed. “World Youth Day is so important for our teens because it gives them a powerful faith experience before they head out into the world as young adults. Young people respond to the pilgrimage experience, an encounter with Pope Francis, and celebrating their faith with young people from across the world.”

For many Alaskan teens, this will be their first opportunity to travel internationally.

“I’m super excited to get to go out of the U.S. for the first time,” said Allison Medland, a teen participant from St. Andrew Church in Eagle River. “I also can’t wait to see the different culture in Panama and Costa Rica. I have friends going on this trip too, so I’m just ready.”

“On my first World Youth Day, I was really excited to visit the different churches in Ireland and Poland, especially,” said Annabelle Austin, a teen from Holy Cross Church in Anchorage. “I’m excited to meet new people. Last World Youth Day I met so many people, and I got to interact with a bunch of different cultures. I really enjoyed it.”

“My hope for young people who attend is that they will have a powerful encounter with God and his church,” McMorrow said. “Investing in faith experiences is essential. World Youth Day is so powerful because it wraps so many incredible aspects of being Catholic into one life-changing experience.”

Teens are being spiritually impacted by the trip even before it begins.

“Ever since before I was told I could go to World Youth Day, I have been going to church more often, and have tried to involve myself with its Catholic community as much as I can,” said Joseph Bjelland, a teen from St. Benedict Church. “I’ve been saying extra prayers for myself, and those who I will be going on the trip with. I hope I will be able to learn even more about my faith, and get closer to God.”

“The whole community has been super supportive,” Medland noted. “In preparation for this trip, I’ve been praying and trying to be open to opportunities. I’ve also been gathering up my supplies and trying to keep in as good of shape as possible because there will be a lot of walking on this trip.”

Most parishes host fundraisers to help their teens and young adults attend the pilgrimage.

St. Benedict has hosted a number of Italian dinners and auctions, along with other fundraisers to help raise the needed funds.

“I am very grateful for the chance to be able to travel out of country, and it would not have been possible without the numerous, generous donations given to my church,” Bjelland said.

“My church has been preparing financially with fundraising, fish fries, selling Advent wreaths and religious jewelry sales,” Austin said. “Spiritually, we have Mass offered every 22nd of the month for the World Youth Day pilgrims, because that is the day in January that the opening Mass will occur. Our youth minister gave us a World Youth Day prayer that we are saying and precious medals from the patroness of Panama.”

The Alaska pilgrims have an additional opportunity: a weeklong mission trip to Costa Rica.

“Going to Costa Rica for the mission trip is what primarily caught my eye,” Bjelland said. “I have always enjoyed helping people, and I think it is an amazing opportunity to be able to travel to another country to help those in need.”

“I’m hoping to just progress spiritually and hopefully work on my patience,” Medland expressed. “I’m also hoping to become more aware of what’s going on in the world and see what I can do to help, especially during the mission trip to Costa Rica.”

Austin said she is hoping to grow spiritually as a Catholic.

“I’m only 17, and I’m still trying to figure out who I am as a person,” she said. “I think this trip would really help define the spiritual side of me.”

'World Youth Day gives Alaska teens a ‘powerful faith experience’'
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