Teens from throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago took on a new role on Friday -- that of pilgrims.
At a special blessing Mass at St. Mary Parish in Buffalo Grove, Cardinal Francis George encouraged the young people to prepare themselves spiritually for the pilgrimage they are about to take to the World Youth Day in Madrid.
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"World Youth Day has been designed to give young people around the world a chance to encounter Christ in their faith," George told the nearly 800 in the audience.
The worldwide congregation opens Aug. 16 in Madrid, when more than 1 million young people are expected to converge on the city and its series of spiritual events. The event culminates Aug. 21, when Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate an open-air Mass.
Officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago, which takes in parishes in Cook and Lake counties, said nearly 500 young people will be traveling to Spain.
"We're thrilled and excited that so many of our young people are going," said Maria Perez-Eraci, who oversees some of the youth ministry programs in the Archdiocese. "We hope they bring their faith back, renewed."
Teens from St. Mary Parish will be traveling with other young people from Our Lady of the Wayside in Arlington Heights and Holy Family Parish in Inverness. In all, 27 teens from those parishes will be going as a delegation, along with 10 adults, and will depart Aug. 8.
Celina Romano, 17, of Buffalo Grove said she had traveled to a national Catholic youth event, but not one with teens from other countries.
"This will bring it to a whole new level. It's on a global scale, literally," said Romano, a Stevenson High School senior.
Steve Flores, 15, of Schaumburg said the chance to see the pope was one of the big draws for him.
"Mostly, I want to get closer to God," Flores said. "I just want to have this experience."
The Mass with the cardinal came after an afternoon of activities, including performances by Spanish and Polish musical groups, that highlighted some of the different cultures of teens traveling for the event.
"I'm just so excited to see how broad our religion is, with so many different countries being represented," added Libby Wright, 17, of Palatine.
During the procession into church, a dozen deacons and priests walked down the center aisle, flanked by an honor guard made of the Knights of Columbus and led by liturgical dancers.
The cardinal was joined by Bishops George Rassis, Joseph Perry and John Manz.
"Our job is to go into the world and to be witnesses to the risen Christ," George told the young people. "It takes a lot of courage and an ability to stand up for what you believe in and to avoid compromise.
"That's why all of the priests and religious here are so encouraged that you are willing to go on this pilgrimage, together."