PANAMA CITY - They were both marathon runners. Still, World Youth Day in Panama was unlike anything they had ever encountered before.
Engaged since September 2018, Huy Le and Clare Tulfo had already walked at least nine miles when they could finally sit down together in St. John Paul II Field where they then waited for Pope Francis to arrive for the vigil with the young people.
Clare, 28, laughed when fiance Huy, a 28-year-old pilgrim from Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church in Denver Colorado, said if they could survive WYD together, their future marriage can handle anything.
"It's super powerful to attend as an engaged couple," Clare said.
And seeing the pope, even multiple times, was a thrill for the two of them.
"It's like seeing St. Peter. It's definitely a once-lifetime opportunity," Claresaid. "
Huy said it helps the two of them see the world in a new way, helping prepare them for their marriage.
"Going to World Youth Day, will hopefully revive me," he said. "And hopefully it will revive her. This is the youth of today, it's the youth of tomorrow and the future of the Church."
Being at World Youth Day as an engaged couple empowers them, Le said.
“I'm lucky enough to have my best friend here through all of this,” he said.
Clare is inspired and motivated by World Youth Day.
“It just gives us hope for the future of the Church," Clare said. "Just being here revives our hope for the future and for our future family, and the kids we raise."
But sometimes that hope is difficult to remember, Huy said.
"Working with youth in our home parishes, we can get despaired," he said. "We see the good and the bad of the church, we see all the bad things, but being out here, seeing all these youth, all shouting and screaming for Christ," it reminds them that it's the strength of the Church.
"I think to see the pope is not just so much as seeing him, but it's also about the waiting for him. I imagine people in Jerusalem as Jesus was walking through," he said. "We might see him for a split second, but being there, we can participate with other youth to cheer for this one person who is on earth representing Christ for us. Seeing hope driving by is a once in a lifetime moment.
"And to lift that moment up, with all the others attending, It's so much about coming together to celebrate with each other," Huy said.
"We had wanted to go to World Youth Days before, but work and life made it difficult. It truly is just us two journeying together to strengthen our relationship and also to journey together to figure out what God wants us to do together as a couple. We tried to prepare ourselves for this journey, immersing ourselves in the culture and such a beautiful country," Clare said. "Believing in God's will and seeking him, we all have this desire for happiness and to be wanted and to be loved, and we all seek that in so many other things and other people, but we can only find true happiness in Jesus alone.”
Doing the Stations of the Cross with others was a powerful moment for her.
"Getting to reflect on Jesus' suffering and his mercy and redemption was absolutely incredible and something I'll always cherish.
Walking to St. John Paul II Field was incredible, Huy said. He felt solidarity with so many others also all walking towards the same way, everyone may have been struggling with the heat and the length of the walk, but everyone had the same destination and that inspired him.
The discernment journey, to get to that same direction both in life and in the moment, wasn't easy.
She had visited convents, praying, "God I'll do whatever your will is, but please don't let me become a nun, but if you want me to I will, but I don't want to!"
But with more discernment, she followed advice from priests and sisters: Change the desires of my heart to match yours, and to not seek the vocation, but seek God first.
Through Adoration, she heard God say: "I didn't die on the cross for you to be a slave, I died for you to be set free." Then she knew she was called to marriage.
Then later, while at the starting line of a marathon, she heard someone call her name. It was Huy.
"The last person you want to see before running a marathon is your ex-boyfriend," she laughed. It was the first time she had seen him in year and a half, making small talk for a few minutes.
She didn't know it, but it turned out since their separation, Le had been working through his own discernment, having joined a religious order for a year and a half in the process.
He asked if they could meet, the week after Clare had returned from a discernment retreat. She said yes. The process continued and 6 months after, he proposed to her the St. Mary's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Oregan, the site of their first date, starting their journey towards marriage.
They looked forward to greeting the Holy Father again when he arrived for the vigil, and then to pray with him in Adoration.