“Hearts on Fire” at World Youth Day

by Patrick Hofer

As I began reflecting on my time at World Youth Day, I couldn’t help but think of the “Hearts of Fire” young adult retreat I had attended a few months ago.  What did World Youth Day have to do with this seemingly unconnected retreat? I realized that the message I took from this retreat tied very closely to other recent life events and served as a great way to recognize how God had moved my heart in Brazil.

Led by a group of Jesuit priests who travel country-wide to introduce the youth to Jesuit spirituality, the “Hearts on Fire” retreat used the heart as a depiction of love and how love is embodied by the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Given the title, I anticipated talks echoing the zealousness of  well-known Jesuits, St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola, but the talks ended up resonating very beautifully with another growing devotion in my life.

Over the last six months, I’ve grown very close to St. Therese of Lisieux, who happened to be a patron of World Youth Day.  Her impact has helped me to better see the meaning of love in my life, and given me a deeper desire to better imitate and recognize the love Jesus shared.  This same love was not only made visible to me in Brazil, but I have come to realize just how central it is to our lives.  St. Therese said:

“Oh, Jesus, my love…my vocation, I have finally found my vocation, it is LOVE.” 

Regardless of who we are and what our path looks like, our vocation on Earth is primarily to love in the way Jesus modeled.  The path God desires us to take, whether marriage, priesthood, or religious life, is just the path in which we are best able to emulate that love.  The  ”Hearts on Fire” retreat stressed three parts of the Sacred Heart that symbolize three aspects of Christ’s love:  the heart “wounded”; the heart “exposed” and the heart “aflame.”  Because this sense of love is so fundamental to our journey in life, I relate my experiences of World Youth Day to the Sacred Heart as to better appreciate how I saw Christ present there.


                First, Christ’s heart is pierced and bleeding, representing his suffering for our salvation.  World Youth Day was a pilgrimage, not a vacation.  Any misconceived notions that it was a vacation were sorted out the first night, in which I believe there was suffering for the sake of bringing us closer to God.  We arrived in Brazil knowing we were staying in a church, with perhaps some unfounded expectations that it would be small quaint living conditions.  Upon arrival, there were already hundreds of pilgrims, and, amid the hecticness and confusion, we were directed through lines we were told would inform us where we were REALLY staying.   I was given very vague instructions that I was staying in a school a half hour’s walk away, which made me slightly nervous.  Fortunately, once our group had finally reconvened, I had found the men were all staying in the same location.  The women in our group, on the other hand, were being split apart into different host families.  Host families would come and collect their groups, walk off, and we would more-or-less have to pray that the women made it back the next day, as we had no good way to contact them.  Unsurprisingly, many of the women were not taking the news well, and the reaction was prolonged as our group waited several hours for some of the women to get picked up.  Amid the confusion, waiting, and emotion, we were also without one of our main group leaders through much of the process as he was waiting in line for 7 or 8 hours at another location trying to secure food vouchers for the week.  Several other complications ensued that I would need another page to detail, spiritual desolation plagued me along with anxieties that followed me to Brazil, and by 1 AM when we finally made it back to the school, I was broken and worn down.


Second, Jesus’ heart is exposed and appears outside of his chest as a reminder that his heart is not locked away, but is vulnerable and present to us.  I said previously that the suffering was for the sake of growing closer to God on our journey.  For me, the second morning was the most beautiful day of the pilgrimage.  I woke up as broken as I fell asleep, but we gathered round early that morning and tried to discuss how we saw God our first day to liven our spirits.  Unconvinced I had seen God, I left to seek him in the adoration chapel.  That moment was the first of many in World Youth Day that I really felt the presence of Jesus with us on our pilgrimage.  Most striking was that I began to digest the meaning of every trial and tribulation from the previous day.  God not only allowed us to be broken, he desired us to be.  To gather what God desired us to from the pilgrimage, I now know that God needed us to be free from our conscious and subconscious whims, attachments, and expectations, so that he could try to refill us with only the desire for him.  Through the progression of the trip, I was thankful because we were able to be very mindful of the gifts God was giving us along the way and how we saw him from day to day.  One of the phrases commonly repeated over the course of the week was “It’s the little things.”  For instance, it was overcast and rainy nearly all week with our ponchos constantly on hand, but our last day camping out on the beach was the most beautiful sunny day.  There were so many of these small, normally unnoteworthy occurrences that we found so much joy in, because they were times we felt God’s presence was exposed to us.


               Finally, Jesus’ Sacred Heart is depicted with a flame encompassing it, signifying the passionate love and desire for our souls.  This was most apparent to me through the unbridled excitement of the millions of devout youths, and a resulting certainty that the future of the Catholic Church is very bright.  For those unfamiliar, there is a vigil the final night of World Youth Day in which all of the pilgrims camp at a vigil sight and awake the next day to celebrate a closing Mass with the Pope.  At the closing mass held on Copacabana Beach was the first time I really understood just how many people had joined us in Rio De Janeiro.

While it was always crowded, events can still seem congested and claustrophobic even in Indianapolis.  However, when they showed the camera panning over the entirety of Copacabana Beach, packed edge to edge, end to end, with youth to the extent that they were overflowing onto the nearby streets, I was simply amazed.  Often times, my view of the Church can be narrow-minded and limited to what I perceive in my local parish.  In this limited perspective, considering the youth in our parish to be the future of the Church seems, in a way, daunting.  I wonder how I can personally make enough of a difference.  When I saw the entirety of the beach, and how misguided I was in my limited perception, my heart was elated.  The theme of World Youth Day was “Go and Make Disciples of All Nations.”  After the closing mass, my spirit was renewed and my heart was aflame, ready to return home and answer this call to make the difference I could, as I knew my 3 million brothers and sisters were inspired to do as well.

Patrick Hofer works in downtown Indianapolis as an actuary and is a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church where he volunteers as a mass server and is involved in the young adult community. Patrick grew up in Indianapolis and attended college at IUPUI.



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