At night they lie on camping mattresses and sleeping bags on the hard floor of an elementary school classroom. They rise early, shunning the familiar golden arches of McDonald's, choosing instead to eat locally bought fruit and bread. They exchange few words with the locals; many Brazilians know English only as a third language.
What they can't share with words, they share in an intangible sense of camaraderie. Michael Miller of Tampa felt it Tuesday night, when he stood with his back toward the crashing waves on Copacabana's beach in Rio de Janeiro, alongside more than 400,000 of his fellow young Catholics, who had gathered for opening Mass at World Youth Day.
"We learn how to live our lives selflessly," said Miller, one of eight Jesuit High School alums on the trip. "We're out doing things we have never done before."
They are a contingent of 47 young men — eight alumni and 39 current students of Jesuit in Tampa — who ventured last week to South America, for a two-week journey to spread their faith, to share their faith and to understand their faith. The trip began with a mission in Paraguay before the group made their way to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to attend World Youth Day — a five-day event drawing young Catholics from throughout the world.
This year, the international event is significant for a number of reasons. It is the first World Youth Day to be held in a Portuguese-speaking country. It is the first to take place under Pope Francis, himself a South American from Argentina. And, for the Jesuit boys especially, it is an opportunity to worship with the first Jesuit pope.
The trip began in Sao Paulo, where the group landed and met with other World Youth Day pilgrims from around the world. They drove four hours into Paraguay and toured settlements that were founded by Portuguese Jesuits more than 450 years ago. They attended Mass in old Jesuit missions.
In Rio, the experience became one they shared with the thousands who attended the World Youth Day opening Mass. Wednesday was a day of shows, prayer and music. On Thursday, Pope Francis arrived, welcoming more than a million young people expected to attend.
The trip costs about $2,800 per student. Each pays his own way. The school also budgets about $200 per student for group expenses. For the boys and their families, it is more than worth the expense.
"It definitely excites you about the faith," said Jesuit senior Michael Mooney. "You learn that faith isn't always a personal thing. It's not just a Sunday thing."
For the Jesuit boys, the trip is a lesson in sacrifice and shared humanity. Away from school, away from parents and away from the social constructs of high school, the boys learn to see each other not as freshmen or seniors or jocks or nerds, but as Jesuits, as Catholics, as brothers.
"I've seen people change here," said sophomore Nick Messina. "Personalities change all together. We go through all these talks, and people start to open up and be more accepting of each other. The social walls are completely torn down."
That takeaway might be key to the overall goal of World Youth Day. With recent statistics showing that fewer young people consider themselves members of any kind of faith, it has been said that such events could serve as a watershed moment for the future of Catholicism, and Christianity.
"When you go on these trips, it's a pilgrimage, not a vacation," said Coleen Murphy-Ricco, whose son Ryan is among the Jesuit "pilgrims" on the trip.
"I think it's so important to the goal of bringing youth into the church. I've read that even in South America the number of Catholics has been dying off," she said. "When I see these boys that are giving up their summer fun, I can't help but think there's hope."