The St. Lawrence Seminary contingent at Fatima, with Fr. Zoy Garibay in the front row. Eighteen students and six staff members from the Mount Calvary high school made the trip to World Youth Day in August in Portugal. (Submitted photo)

Experiences of pilgrimage and encounters with the universality of the Catholic Church have been central to the spiritual life of Fr. Zoy Garibay, O.F.M. Cap.

There was Fatima in 2004 — the first trip Fr. Garibay made after becoming a naturalized United States citizen and receiving his passport. Then there was Krakow in 2016, where he heard Pope Francis commission all the young people present to be “ambassadors, messengers of God’s Good News to the world.”

In each of these moments, Fr. Garibay had the profound urge to evangelize the experience and the truths communicated by it.

“Those experiences you don’t want to keep to yourself — you want to share with others,” said Fr. Garibay.

So, when Fr. Garibay, who is the president and rector of St. Lawrence Seminary High School in Mount Calvary, became aware of the plans being made to hold World Youth Day this year in Lisbon, Portugal, he knew it was an opportunity he had to bring to his students.

“I really came away from those experiences with renewed faith, with regenerated desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and to be his ambassador to the world,” he said.

For the first time, St. Lawrence Seminary sent a group of students and staff to World Youth Day, which was held in Lisbon from Aug. 1-6 and attended by an estimated 1.5 million people from around the globe.

Interest in the pilgrimage from parents and students was high as soon as it was announced, said Fr. Garibay. Benefactors of the school were also very quick to show support for the endeavor, and before the end of 2022, registration for the trip was full, with 18 boys and six staff members signed up to go.

While in Portugal, the group visited Fatima and the birthplace of St. Anthony of Padua, along with the village of Santarem, home to the Santuario do Santissimo Milagre, where a Eucharistic miracle occurred in 1266.

But “the cherry on top” of the entire trip was their close encounter with the Holy Father in Lisbon’s Parque Eduardo VII on Aug 3.

Pope Francis, riding in his open-topped vehicle and flanked by his security team, passed immediately in front of the group and looked directly at Fr. Garibay, giving him a wink and a thumbs-up.

St. Lawrence Seminary staff member Andrea School captured the moment on video and shared it to social media.

“Up until that point in time we had said, ‘Yeah, we’ll see the pope, but he’ll just be a dot on a screen.’ It was absolutely surreal to see someone up close that you’ve really only heard about,” School said. “To have that small interaction was inspiring and moved all of us to tears.”

It was an especially poignant moment for Fr. Garibay, who attributes his vocation to a similar experience he had with St. John Paul II in 1981 when the pontiff visited the Philippines.

At the time, Fr. Garibay was only 5 years old. “We all traveled to the city to have a glimpse of the pope,” he recalled. “My dad grabbed me and put me on his shoulder and told me, ‘Wave, wave, wave!’ I saw first the motorcycles and then the limousines, and then this odd-looking vehicle, which we now know as the popemobile — in the back, Pope John Paul II in his white cassock. His cheeks were pink because he is Polish and the Philippines are very hot. But he was smiling, and he was blessing the people as he was passing them. That image is still ingrained in my mind to this day. It was then that I decided that I want to become a priest. I attribute that to be the beginnings of my religious and priestly vocations.”

School said the entire World Youth Day experience gave her courage to “live my faith more ‘out loud’ than ever before.”

“There were so many young people present who were unafraid to sing, dance and interact while being unapologetically Catholic. I feel that here in America, we mask our personal beliefs because we don’t want to offend people or, more likely, be confronted,” she said.

The group had meaningful conversations about what it means to display one’s Catholicism openly and proudly.

“Coming from a high school that is already quite diverse, it was eye-opening to see an even grander diversity in the celebration of Catholicism,” she said.

Fr. Garibay said he hopes that this experience of the Universal Church, and especially of personal acknowledgment from the Holy See, will be for his students the beginning of a discernment of the will of God in their lives, as it was for him so many years ago.

“They will always look back on their experience at World Youth Day in Lisbon, and that moment when they were that close, and (the Holy Father’s) face was on us. I really hope that it will have the same effect on them, that it will be the beginning of their journey,” he said. “It’s very affirming, and that’s what we strive to do here at St. Lawrence Seminary in all of our programs — offer them opportunities to affirm their faith, renew their desire to serve the Lord, fortify their love of God and love of neighbor, and inspire them to be sent forth to become ambassadors for Christ. Our World Youth Day experience, I think, encapsulated that.”