April 21, 2023

A prayer to Our Lady

Young woman finds strength and a taste of heaven on World Youth Day scouting trip to Portugal

Emily Mastronicola poses in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal where she visited on March 29 as part of her advance scouting trip for the nearly 200 young people from the archdiocese who will be attending World Youth Day with Pope Francis in that European country on Aug. 1-6. (Submitted photo)

Emily Mastronicola poses in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal where she visited on March 29 as part of her advance scouting trip for the nearly 200 young people from the archdiocese who will be attending World Youth Day with Pope Francis in that European country on Aug. 1-6. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

As she prayed at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, Emily Mastronicola noticed the dramatic changes in herself.

At 28, she had come to Portugal to do advanced scouting for the nearly 200 youths, young adults and chaperones from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who have already signed up to travel to World Youth Day this summer, joining thousands upon thousands of young Catholics from around the globe who will celebrate their faith with Pope Francis.

But her planning trip in late March to Fatima and Lisbon also became a remarkable time of faith for Mastronicola, the coordinator of events and volunteers for the archdiocese’s young adult and college campus ministry.

“Before the trip, I had a lot of anxiety, just getting ready,” she says about her first international trip. “Some trips before, I’ve gotten sick or had some anxiety. But the whole time I was there I was completely at peace. Just being there to witness and see people pray, I just felt so much strength—strength I haven’t felt in a while.

“I wasn’t afraid about the million things that are going on in our world or thinking about my ministry. I was just able to be there in honor of God. It was just like a great big hug, an affirmation. There was so much peace there.”

She especially felt that peace at the shrine in Fatima, built at the place where the Blessed Mother first appeared to three shepherd children—Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia—on May 13, 1917.

“My favorite day was going to Fatima on March 29,” Mastronicola says. “They have a statue of Our Lady that represents the spot where she appeared to the children in a tree. It’s very peaceful and beautiful there.

“You have pilgrims there in the evening praying, going to Mass, lighting candles. To have a place completely dedicated to Our Lady, it’s like a paradise and a taste of what heaven could be like. Just being able to pray all day, not having any worries in the world, and just being able to rest—rest just like a child, like Jacinta, Lucia or Francisco.”

Best of all, being there led her to a deeper connection with the Blessed Mother, a relationship that hasn’t always been meaningful to her.

‘Have you called your mother today?’

“I didn’t always have the best relationship with Our Lady,” she says. “I really didn’t find much fruit in praying the rosary, mainly because it takes a good, long time. And I’m always like, ‘Go, go, go!’ ”

That close connection started when she was a student at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., when a friend asked her a question that befuddled her at first.

“He would always say, ‘Emily, have you called your mother today?’ I’d say, ‘I just talked to my mother last night.’ And he would say, ‘No, have you talked to your mother?’ ”

When it sunk in that her friend was talking about the Blessed Mother, Mastronicola did start calling her, slowing down enough to pray the rosary, because another reality sunk in for her—that “Mary is ultimately the connection between her son Jesus and us.”

“That really started to grow in me. Then I had a different friend who went to stay with the sisters of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He brought me back a rosary that’s a third-degree relic of Mother Teresa made by the same guy who makes rosaries for the sisters.

“Whenever I get scared or I’m nervous about something—or especially during the pandemic—that rosary just gives me a lot of comfort in moments of fear in my life. And it deepened my relationship with [Mary] as someone who is there, even when I’m alone.”

That closeness with the Blessed Mother also grew when she worked part time at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis for a while. There she found comfort at the retreat house’s grotto to Our Lady of Fatima, a scenic setting that captures images of the three children kneeling before the Blessed Mother. Experiencing the shrine in Portugal added extra layers of beauty and peace, drawing Mastronicola even closer to Mary.

“It was really impactful,” she says, seeing her own connection to the three shepherd children. “I feel like the children were very afraid. But once they saw Mary, they were very affirmed, and they were consoled.

“Even though some people thought they were completely crazy, they totally surrendered and trusted Mary. And that’s ultimately what we’re called to do. That’s what I felt like there. After the trip, I just feel a little bit braver.”

Honoring ‘the dignity of the person you are with’

After her advanced scouting trip, she also feels more confident that she will be able to help make the experience of World Youth Day a blessed and memorable journey for the young pilgrims from the archdiocese.

As World Youth Day actually lasts almost a week—Aug. 1-6—there’s a need for someone to coordinate and corral the archdiocesan group attending the event, which will feature a journey to the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima and a closing Mass with Pope Francis in Lisbon.

“This is going to be my first World Youth Day,” Mastronicola says. “I’m going to be excited, having seen a lot of the places ahead of time. I have a working knowledge of the cities, to let them know whether they need to take a bus there or this is going to be a long walk.

“All of our groups for World Youth Day are going to be together. We’re all staying in the same hotel. From the diocesan perspective, we’re just making sure everybody gets abroad, everybody gets to the hotel, and especially on the days we go to Fatima that we keep everybody on the buses. We’ll just be making sure everybody arrives together and goes home together.”

Beyond helping to make the trip as seamless as possible, Mastronicola will also offer some of the insights she has gained from her scouting—insights to help put everyone in the right mindset for the journey. Her advice seems meaningful for people of all ages in our ever-connected, technology-driven culture.

“One thing I would say about Fatima and Portugal in general, the culture is very rooted,” she says. “The people were very present to one another. At dinner, I noticed that people wouldn’t be checking their phones. You’d go walking down the street and people wouldn’t be texting on their phones.

“It was very much a feeling of, ‘I’m going to interact with people. I’m not going to interact with my device and people at the same time.’ So that was really refreshing, just to be able to honor the dignity of the person that you are with.”

Staying open to the possibilities of life and faith

She also noticed that people seemed to place an emphasis on leaving time for relaxing, re-energizing and being open and present to the possibilities of life and faith—and not just to the structure of one’s life.

“When you’re out in the streets, in the churches or in the chapels, people aren’t really in a rush to be anywhere or to do anything. I think about some of our young adults today who are getting up to go to work. [They’re thinking,] ‘I have a social thing after work, I have to be with my family on the weekend, I have my whole entire month scheduled outright, and I know I’m going to church on Sunday, but I only have an hour scheduled for that. And, oh, I have to meal prep.’ ”

She takes a deep breath and smiles before continuing.

“That is not European life. It’s very much in the moment. I hope what people on the pilgrimage can take away is to just leave more room for the Spirit to work in their lives, and just leave more room for God to work in their lives and not have everything so structured and planned. Leave room for silence, for prayer, so you can be able to witness the presence of the beauty in these churches, but also in the different people you’re meeting from different countries.

“That’s my biggest hope, for people to surrender their schedules to the Spirit.”

She also offers one more defining hope from a scouting trip that gave her time to stroll by the Atlantic Ocean, savor croissants and jam for breakfast, enjoy fresh seafood for dinner, and relax with a cup of espresso while people-watching.

“I hope that people believe in Jesus, and they believe that the Church is not asleep, that the Church is very much alive.

“I hope people are able to come and just remember their roots, their roots of the Church and the promises of Our Lady coming from the rosary. I also hope they remember the promises in our salvation history—that we are still living and telling the greatest story ever told.”

(Anyone interested in getting more information about the archdiocesan trip to World Youth Day should contact Meagan Morrisey, director of young adult and college campus ministry for the archdiocese, at mmorrisey@archindy.org.)

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