ALYSSA DECKER POSES with new friends from other countries.
ALYSSA DECKER POSES with new friends from other countries.
Seven teenagers from the Albany Diocese who traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for World Youth Day last month are still digesting the experience and its impact on them.

"I definitely wish I was still there," said Casey Frankoski, 18, of St. John the Evangelist/St. Joseph's parish in Rensselaer. The parish raised $15,000 to help send six youth and three adults on a 10-day trip. "I was literally 10 feet from the pope. That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'll never be able to do that again."

In addition to World Youth Day activities - which included a vigil and a Mass with Pope Francis on the sands of Copacabana beach, a Way of the Cross procession through Brazilian streets, vocations fairs and high-energy youth festivals - the Rensselaer group also got a chance to be tourists for a few days.

They gushed about making friends from all over the world, snorkeling and collecting sea glass on an island tour, getting surf lessons from a fellow hostel guest and seeing the famous Christ the Redeemer statue at the peak of the Corcovado mountain. The group reached that landmark via a train through the rainforest; to pass the time, they taught the Spaniards and Brazilians on board how to sing "Yankee Doodle."

Faith is OK
John Kenna, 18, said he was happy to meet new people and "just share our faith with each other and have a good time. It was pretty cool because you see them come from places you wouldn't expect," like China, Russia and Middle Eastern countries.

John, who will attend Elmira College in the fall, was surprised "how excited people were and how nice they were. I didn't expect people there to be very friendly, [but] people just took time from their day to help complete strangers."

The trip taught him "there's plenty other kids out there who are religious. I'm not the only person."

Casey, an incoming freshman at Schenectady County Community College, drew similar conclusions: "It's made me really realize that it's cool to be Catholic. Nobody was embarrassed to say, 'I love God.' We were all singing songs about Him. It just seemed normal, like the 'in' thing."

Casey attended World Youth Day in Spain two years ago with the same youth group; she wanted to "connect through our faith" with strangers all over again.

"We all bond - no matter who we are, how old we are, where we're from," she explained.

Fellow pilgrim John Repula, a 17-year-old junior at Rensselaer High, agreed.

"World Youth Day unites [people] in a way that they can all join together to share ideas" despite worldwide religious, military and ethnic conflicts, he said.

John is not a baptized Catholic, but his family goes to St. John the Evangelist/St. Joseph's. He wanted to visit Brazil and catch a glimpse of an important religious figure.

"I feel like I have a whole new understanding of faith," he said after the trip. "I know more about how things came to be. I wasn't always exactly sure of what [the pope] stood for."

He's now eager to be baptized and officially join the parish: "It was phenomenal."

Changed lives
Alyssa Decker, 15, a junior at Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer, also had a change of heart during the trip: She previously made it to Mass only on holidays, but plans to go more regularly now.

"I should be proud of my faith, and it's not something that I should take lightly," she said.

Alyssa used to pray nightly, "but it was just about the same stuff and it's because I felt like I had to. But now it's because I want to. I'm a lot more grateful.

"I'm making my confirmation next year," she added. "I'm super excited about that now."

Alyssa loved trading flags at World Youth Day events.

"It was like I traveled all over, but only stayed in Brazil," she said. Whenever her American group was noticed by young people from other countries, "there were so many people running up to us saying, 'Oh, my God; oh, my God! Can I take a picture with you guys?' It was crazy. It made you feel really proud to be from your country."