Local siblings put ‘R&R’ on back burner with January trip to Panama for World Youth Day

Siblings Grace Richert (left), 18, and Stephen Richert, 19, were among 75 pilgrims from the Catholic Church Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend to make the journey in January to Panama to celebrate World Youth Day. They joined Pope Francis, more than 150,000 young people from 155 countries and a total of 600,000 people who attended Mass on the final day of the event.
Siblings Grace Richert (left), 18, and Stephen Richert, 19, were among 75 pilgrims from the Catholic Church Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend to make the journey in January to Panama to celebrate World Youth Day. They joined Pope Francis, more than 150,000 young people from 155 countries and a total of 600,000 people who attended Mass on the final day of the event. Photo provided.

This is a good time of year to take a journey to a tropical climate, and two siblings from Huntington, Grace and Stephen Richert, did just that in January. But the two young adults didn’t make sightseeing and “R&R” their top priority – they had a more spiritual goal in mind.

The Richerts were part of 75 high school students, young adults, seminarians, priests, religious sisters and chaperones to make a pilgrimage to the 15th international celebration of World Youth Day, this year in Panama. Representing the Catholic Church Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, they joined Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes in attending the event, which was also attended by Pope Francis.

The event took place Jan. 22 to Jan. 27, a global gathering that organizers say drew at least 600,000 pilgrims from 155 countries on all six continents, including an estimated 12,000 youths from the United States. Those who could not attend could view live-streamed events via the internet.

Grace Richert, 18, a senior at Bishop Luers High School, took a pass from classes in order to be a part of the monumental occasion. She described it as “amazing.”

“Just being with people from all over the world, and everyone being there for the same reason was such a cool experience,” she says. “Even where there was too much of a language barrier to communicate, everyone was so excited to be seeing other groups.”

At first, Richert says she was drawn to the pilgrimage by the thought of being part of the immense gathering of Catholic youth. The theme of this World Youth Day conference was “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word (from Luke 1:38).” The theme encouraged the youth to say yes to God, open their hearts to his will and get involved in service to others.

In that light, Richert says, one amazing experience was seeing Pope Francis as he spoke to the young people and led them in celebrating a giant outdoor Mass.

“Being present while he was preaching was a wonderful experience,” she adds. “There were several times he gave his remarks – on Thursday of that week, and he spoke again at the Stations of the Cross on Friday, and then at the vigil on Saturday and the Mass Sunday morning. There were a lot of times that we got to hear him.”

Richert says she came away from the experience with much more than she imagined. Besides fellow high school students and the welcoming people of Panama, she also had time to interact and share the World Youth Day experience with Bishop Rhodes, along with priests, seminarians and a few sisters from her diocese.

“I had some really wonderful conversations with the priests and seminarians, and with Bishop Rhodes as well,” she says.

One of the most important things she learned from Pope Francis at the conference was that the youth are not just the future; they are now. It has prompted her to be more active about her faith.

“We need to be taking ownership of our faith and being involved in our communities now,” she recalled. “We’re not the Church of tomorrow, or the people of tomorrow; we are the Church and the people of today. That call to action – is that youth need to be more involved.”

After she graduates, Richert plans to become a teacher in a Catholic school – but she is open to becoming more involved in ministry, and is contemplating becoming a religious sister.

Like his sister, Stephen Richert, who is a 19-year-old college student at Loras College in Dubuque, IA, also uses superlatives to describe his pilgrimage. He calls his first international travel a “fantastic experience.”

“It broadened my horizons a lot to get to immerse myself into another culture. I was very happy to have that experience,” he relates. “The faith aspect of the whole thing was also very significant to me, just coming from being part of the Catholic Church, being universal, to getting to experience the real universality of the Church, meeting people from different countries from all around the world. Having a spiritual experience with them was very moving for me.”

One of the most inspirational experiences of Richert’s pilgrimage was when he prayed the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) in a service led by the pope.

“There was a big emphasis on, obviously, the suffering of Christ at the stations of the cross to put our focus on, but in addition to that, on the suffering of others, being united with Christ, which each station focused on a different issue, be it human trafficking, or the lives of the unborn threatened by abortion or the elderly. Another one was just care for the environment and how all that suffering is united in Christ’s suffering,” Richert says. “He was kind of the model for all of us who face a lot of injustices against us personally. …

“The big thing that struck me was, if our God had all this done to him, it is such an obligation on anyone as a Christian to ensure that this never happens to anyone again, to the best of our abilities.”

There was also some time for fun in Panama. The group visited several cathedrals in the country, took a boat ride on a river in the Gamboa Rainforest – where Grace spied monkeys and a crocodile – and also took a tour of a sloth sanctuary.

Both Grace and Stephen took a plethora of pictures documenting their pilgrimage, including video catching Pope Francis riding by in the Popemobile.

Grace and Stephen’s mom, Amy Richert, is thrilled that her kids got to experience what is arguably the trip of a lifetime. The family is also grateful that the parishioners of SS. Peter and Paul came together to patronize fund-raisers and donate toward the costs of such a journey. But it was the differences in the siblings after they returned that impressed her.

“Going into this, obviously we’ve raised them as Catholics, and they both went into this with, I feel, a very strong faith,” she says. “It was just further reinforced by their experience down there. ... They both seem revitalized and ready to go out and accomplish something – I don’t know what – but they’re both very excited about the prospects for the future.”

During the conference, Pope Frances announced that the next World Youth Day will take place in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2022.