GREENVILLE — They came to meet their pope, and they discovered their bishop in the process.
Nearly 40 Catholics from South Carolina joined hundreds of thousands of others who journeyed to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day Aug. 16-21. Most of the South Carolina pilgrims were teenagers; all of them were enthusiastic about their trip.
Benedict John-Paul Coffey, a 16-year-old student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, called World Youth Day “a blast.”
“Imagine — 1.5 million youth, all of one faith, came together to honor one guy,” Coffey said.
He was speaking of his namesake, Pope Benedict XVI. Seeing him was the highlight of the pilgrimage for Coffey and for St. Mary parishioner Justin K. State, 17. But State also enjoyed the company of the bishop of the Diocese of Charles-ton, Robert J. Baker.
“The bishop said Mass for us every day for 10 straight days in churches all over Italy and at our hotel in Germany,” State said. “And he was on all our bus rides, so everyone got the opportunity to talk to him personally. He’s a nice guy.”
State said that Bishop Baker translated for them in Italian restaurants. Jerry White, diocesan director of youth, said the bishop was “outstanding on the trip with the youth.”
The South Carolina prelate also had an audience with the pope while they were both in Cologne.
Danner M. Thompson Jr. of St. James in Conway, an adult who assists White with the Evangelization Team for the diocese, said that the presence of Bishop Baker made his two-week trip to Europe with six high school seniors the best he’s ever taken.
“Bishop Baker was with us the entire time and made a tremendous difference to our visit. As we rode around Europe, he added information about our faith that the guide didn’t know. He said Mass for us, and the rosary. He was a godsend,” Thompson said.
The group with Thompson, from St. James, St. Andrew in Myrtle Beach and St. Anthony in Florence, stood on a street near a curve for six hours to catch their third glimpse of Pope Benedict. It was worth the wait.
“The popemobile had to slow for the curve, and we were no more than 10 feet from him. I swear he pointed right at me and said: ‘Danner, you need a blessing.’ Seeing the pope that close was the highlight for everyone,” Thompson said.
He said that the South Carolina youths were overwhelmed at seeing so many Catholics in one place, especially since their state has so few Catholics. Coffey said that all those kids made for a massive party, as well.
“Everybody was singing and dancing, speaking different languages and still having fun,” he said.
Pope Benedict appeared to be having fun also. It was his first major event as pope. World Youth Day is held every three or four years and is planned years in advance, so it is considered a greatly fortuitous happenstance that this year’s was planned for Germany, where the newly elected pope was born and raised. Pope Benedict maintains a lower personal profile than his predecessor, but his style was popular with young people.
“He looked active and strong, but grandfatherly and kind, sort of how I would envisage a father to be,” said M. Abbey Moon, 16, of St. Mary. “Everyone loved him. The big thing was this chant, ‘Hey, Benedicto,” followed by three claps.”
Moon went with her mother, but didn’t feel constrained by her presence. (“She made friends, and I made friends.”) She did feel grateful for the presence of her bishop.
“Bishop Baker was great. He arranged an audience with the pope for us. There were only 3,000 people in the hall, compared to the hundreds of thousands every place else,” Moon said.
She and all the pilgrims The Miscellany spoke to said they were already planning for the next World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in 2008.