Dozens of teens from the Diocese of Rochester now view Pope Benedict XVI as more than just a famous Catholic leader who lives far away in the Vatican.
Approximately 60 youths and 10 adult chaperones from five local parishes traveled to St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers April 19 to participate in an outdoor youth rally with the pope.
“It was awesome. It was amazing,” said 17-year-old Linsey Smith, who belongs to Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece.
Linsey said she was “really impressed” by the pope’s humble and down-to-earth attitude.
“You can just tell with his voice, this is the guy who was meant to do this,” she said.
Linsey and the other diocesan pilgrims rode to Yonkers on two buses that departed from Avon and Rochester early in the morning on April 19 in order to beat the expected crowd of 25,000 people.
“At three in the morning everyone was piling on buses. For the first two hours we were all just sleeping,” said 13-year-old Becky Drexler of St. Agnes Parish in Avon.
When the local travelers got there the crowd wasn’t too big and they were able to walk right through the gates, said 15-year-old Holly Drummond of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Scottsville. Within about 90 minutes, however, people started to flood through the gates and lines for food started to back up, Linsey said.
Pope Benedict wasn’t due to arrive at the rally until 5 p.m., so entertainers such as Kelly Clarkson, Third Day and even a rapping priest kept the crowds entertained for several hours before his arrival.
“It was kind of hot out but it was fun. There were tons and tons of people. It was really cool,” Becky said.
“It was really hot and there were people everywhere,” Holly added.
Security was tight in the area around the rally, and police and Secret Service sharpshooters kept a close eye on the crowds. This police presence didn’t seem to make the young people nervous, however. On the contrary, some of the teens enjoyed the novelty of the sharpshooters’ presence, Holly said.
“We actually named one of them Mr. Clean,” she remarked about one of the sharpshooters, who apparently did not have much hair.
At about 4:30 p.m. Pope Benedict arrived at a chapel on the seminary grounds, where he met with and blessed approximately 50 young people with disabilities and their caretakers. The thousands gathered at the rally watched this exchange on large screens set up outdoors, then they continued to watch the screens as the pope left the chapel and climbed into his popemobile.
“It was really cool. They played … organ music. Then they showed him leaving and coming in the popemobile the whole way there,” Becky said.
“He came in his popemobile and he came around the edge of where all the people were and he went up on the stage and sat in this big chair,” Holly added.
As the pope arrived at the rally, most people flocked over to a blocked-off aisle where they thought he would pass, but then he ended up taking another route, Linsey explained. Becky was able to see the popemobile pass because Mike Drexler — her dad and St. Agnes’ faith-formation coordinator — hoisted her up onto his shoulders.
“The popemobile was how I had seen it on TV and in the newspapers,” Becky said.
Holly noticed that when the pope arrived, the sunny, 70-degree weather changed and became a little windy and chilly. The change was a welcome relief for people who’d spent the past several hours packed together with thousands of others under a hot sun, she said.
“I just thought that was weird and really ironic,” Holly remarked.
After arriving on the stage, Pope Benedict directly addressed the young people who’d come from miles around to be with him.
“He talked about hope and charity and keeping a close relationship with God and that we have to keep going on our path and journey as we’re still young,” Becky said. “It’s really important for the youth to keep going with their faith right now.”
After the pope left, the crush of people moved toward the gates. The diocesan pilgrims were some of the first ones out of the rally, but even so they waited more than an hour before catching a shuttle back to their buses, Linsey said. On the way, the teens met and struck up conversations with some interesting people, including a group of priests from Boston, Holly said.
“Some of the people that came there were just really fun and … they all had different stories and points of view. They were really interesting to talk to,” she said.
By the time they got to the buses, most of the local travelers were extremely hungry, Becky said. A group of travelers had attempted to get food earlier in the day, but had found themselves separated from the group and stranded when routes through the rally location were blocked off in anticipation of Pope Benedict’s arrival.
“Our group who was getting food for us was kind of locked in, so most of us didn’t eat,” she explained.
However, Theresa Fantone, youth minister at St. Agnes, had made prior arrangements with a pizza parlor located on the route home. When the buses arrived at the restaurants, they found 25 pizzas ready and waiting for them, Becky said. After devouring the pizzas on the buses, most of the travelers fell asleep for most of the ride home, Linsey said.
Although the trip was exhausting at times, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that Linsey said she’s glad she took advantage of.
“The pope was the coolest thing,” Becky added.