Dreams became a reality for 2012 Helias graduate Celina Aur in her faith-inspired journey to South America for mission work and World Youth Day.
After nurturing abandoned children at a farm in Brazil for nearly a year, Aur concluded her time in Rio de Janeiro with participation in World Youth Day, a five-day event in which Catholic youths celebrate and learn more about their faith under the direction of the pope.
"What I did felt like a dream but, at least, I was living my dreams," Aur said.
Following the lead of her older brother, Aur began her mission work in Brazil through Heart's Home, a Catholic nonprofit organization.
Aur had no knowledge of World Youth Day before embarking on her mission trip, but eagerly chose to attend, much to the excitement of family members back home, she said.
Living in churches in Rio, Aur and other youths spent much time engaged in "spiritual enhancement activities," such as studies of the Bible and the writings of Pope Francis, she said.
Aur acknowledged that Pope Francis is actively changing the image of the Catholic Church in the world with his emphasis on "spreading God's Word with actions and works."
"He's more encouraging about it than other popes in the past," she said. "I think he encourages young adults to go out and do something greater than themselves. With that work, the world will change," Aur said.
She added: "The way he presents himself is righteous. It helps others to be more accepting of the Catholic faith."
Aur also was impressed by the pope's willingness to interact with the youths.
"For us, it is impacting that the pope steps down to make time to be with us. We think he's untouchable, but he's just like us."
And she was fascinated by the international admiration of the papacy.
"It was impacting that everyone is in love with what the pope does. Knowing he is the next closest thing to Jesus brings everyone together," she said.
As part of a gathering of millions of youths from around the world, Aur felt deeply connected to her peers despite the conversation difficulties caused by language barriers.
"It (the language barrier) doesn't matter because presence is more important," she said.
Though Aur is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, which allowed her to understand speeches given by Pope Francis, she could not always comprehend the words of others speaking languages such as Polish, German, French and Italian.
In spite of some communication dilemmas, the youths constantly expressed enjoyment of the experience without words, said Aur.
"I loved how everyone was laughing and smiling. They were happy to be there with an appreciation of every moment," she said.
In the company of millions of Catholic youths, travel around Rio was often congested; however, close quarters did nothing to dampen her experience.
"Everywhere we walked, we were in a close pack," Aur said of moving around the city.
In one instance, the city bus system shut down because of the impossibility of accommodating the large number of people. Aur and the others were forced to walk through the streets of Rio to the churches where they were staying, she said.
"... They walked through the tunnels close together, all singing and screaming. (They were) so happy to be there," Aur said.
Interacting with Catholics of many cultures, as well as acclimating to the Brazilian culture and its version of the faith, was intriguing to Aur.
"It (the Brazilian Catholic church) is so animated and amazing to be a part of. They're all hugging and kissing and throwing hands around. We (Americans) are used to a calm, civil mass," she said.
"People learn to accept the beauty of other cultures," Aur said.
The solidarity of the youths was especially evident in the festivities of the final evening. Instead of sleeping in area churches, many participants slept on the streets and beach near Rio, then arose to watch the sunrise together the following morning, Aur said.
"It was the most unity and peace I've experienced so far. It's a relieving feeling to know there are so many people looking to put things completely in God's hands," she said.
Aur plans to attend University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, this fall to major in anthropology.
She hopes to continue mission work on a slightly smaller scale through work in soup kitchens and orphanages.
"Mission work allows you to put others in front of you and see the face of Christ in those who suffer," she said. "I think if people actually leave their comfort zones ... They can put themselves in a situation to do what they need to do for God and lay everything down for him."