Road to Cologne includes stops at famous pilgrimage sites

.- Thousands of young people from around the world are pouring into Cologne, Germany, today for the start of World Youth Day (WYD) 2005 Aug. 16.

However, many pilgrims are not arriving directly from their home countries. They have decided to make a detour and take the opportunity once in Europe to visit important pilgrimage sites, such as the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, St. Peter’s in Rome or the Shrine of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.

About 1,000 WYD pilgrims spent their days leading up to WYD with the ecumenical Taize community in Taize, France. Another 3,000 young people from around the world were at the spirituality centre in Taize at the same time, following a separate weeklong retreat program.

The community, consisting of less than 200 brothers, is renowned the world over for its simple chants and meditative prayer. It was founded by Br. Roger in the mid-1940s.

Vera Denton and her two brothers from the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama, visited Rome and Assisi before stopping in Taize for one week on their way to Cologne. The 22-year-old architecture student at Notre Dame University said she believes Taize “demonstrates the possibilities that can come out of ecumenical gatherings.”

Vera had begun an ecumenical youth group in Dauphin Island two years ago, where she lived with her family before going off to university. “I think it’s easier to break barriers and build [Christian] unity with young people,” she said. Her two brothers, Nicholas, 18, and Gabriel, 16, continue to attend the ecumenical youth group. 

About 100 young Puerto Ricans from the Diocese of Caguas also stopped in Taize with their bishop before heading to Cologne.

“Our bishop and vicar general wanted us to have this ecumenical experience, so we can understand ecumenism and embrace it,” said Jose Emilio Mercado Fontanes, who was on his way to his first WYD. The 23-year-old recently graduated with a teaching degree.

In preparation for WYD, the bishop of Caguas would often speak about ecumenism and ecumenical relations, a growing need in Puerto Rico, said Fontanes.

A Claretian priest traveling with the group, Fr. Luis, told CNA that Protestant sects have grown significantly in Puerto Rico. Currently, practicing Catholics make up only 26 percent of the Puerto Rican population. Only 30 years ago or so, the entire population professed the Catholic faith, he said.

Puerto Ricans “are a divided people,” said Fontanes, referring to church affiliation. “But we are trying to unite. Every year we have an ecumenical event called Encuentro Artistico Juveniles, and many people turn out.”

Fontanes said his experience in Taize helped him to deepen his understanding of communion. It provided his group with ideas of how to reach out to people of different Christian denominations more effectively, he said.

Fontanes said he wanted to attend WYD to experience the universality of the Church and, after having spent two days Christians from around the world in Taize, he felt his WYD experience was off to a good start. 

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