Daniel Bezalel Richardsen and Irena Vélez Nierojewski in Mangualde for Days in the Diocese at this summer’s World Youth Day in Portugal. Photo courtesy Daniel Bezalel Richardsen

Arriving at the infinite from a secure port

  • September 30, 2023

We first met on a bus to Auschwitz. I, Daniel, was the oldest and Irena the youngest in our cohort of pilgrims at World Youth Day  held in Kraków, Poland, in 2016. That experience forged an indelible older brother-little sister bond that endures. Seven years later, our respective discernment led us both to say yes to returning to WYD held this past summer in Lisbon, Portugal.


I had a transformative experience on the feast of Transfiguration in 2019, and was especially receptive to Fr. Joseph Matlak, a Ukrainian Catholic priest I’d met just a few days after. After hearing about my positive experience at Kraków, Fr. Joseph encouraged me to consider taking a group of young Ukrainian Catholic pilgrims to Portugal for the next WYD. It seemed far away at the time, but I took his words — and the desire of my own heart to say yes — seriously. In the ensuing years, the desire never receded, and I knew I would go.

I am an unlikely choice to lead a Ukrainian Catholic group. I am South Asian and belong to the Ordinariate, but having married into the beautiful Byzantine tradition, it has since become my own too. For many of us, the war in Ukraine has been a difficult trial and a source of grief and anguish. Offering this suffering of our people up to Christ and Our Lady of Fatima was a primary prayer intention for our group.

On our very first day in Lisbon, I was struck with grief. I received news that my wife’s uncle and godfather, Fr. Roman Galadza, had died. Fr. Roman was the one who’d affirmed Fr. Joseph’s vocation, and without him, none of us would have been in Portugal. The same morning, our group had been asked to present something from our tradition before the national Canadian gathering for WYD. We’d already decided our repertoire would have the paschal refrains from Easter. In singing those words of hope amidst tears, I experienced a profound hope and unity with my spouse, Ivanka, our family and with all those who were present. I experienced the truth of the insight of Fr. Giussani that with the resurrection of Christ, all of reality is suffused with positivity.  

The most astonishing parts of our pilgrimage were unplanned surprises.

In the first instance, there was a last-minute invitation that led to something beautiful. In the flood of people at the opening Mass, some from our group ran into Syro-Malabar pilgrims who invited us to attend their catechesis and Holy Qurbana the next morning. It was a vibrant group from all over the English-speaking world and India; I even ran into a friend and fellow naval reservist from Ottawa. It was invigorating to be in the presence of fellow Eastern Catholics, playing the vital role of being a creative minority within the Church and in the wider community.

The second example was my running into two Ukrainian Catholic bishops, Archbishop Borys Gudziak and Bishop Hlib Lochyna, while heading to exhibits on Mother Teresa and on persecuted Christians. Both were childhood friends of my mother-in-law, and I had initially met Bishop Borys in Ukraine several years prior. I discovered that over 600 WYD pilgrims from Ukraine had their daily catechesis and Divine Liturgy at the same church I had been heading to for the exhibits. This encounter led our group to join the Ukrainian pilgrims on their very last Divine Liturgy the next day before walking to the vigil with Pope Francis.

Our days and evenings were filled with small joys of conversation, encounters and discovering a resplendent city brimming with history by the ocean. We discovered the catholicity or universality of the Church. Amid the vexillological variety, we saw an amity that was rooted in a common belonging. We also felt a deep unity through the various forms and languages of the liturgy.

At the end of WYD, I left for a few days in England before returning to Canada, while Irena continued her pilgrimage with her sister and friends on the Portuguese Camino to Santiago de Compostela.


Leading up to WYD, I spent considerable time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, where prayer comes most naturally to me. Each time I knelt in the adoration chapel and closed my eyes. At some point I would spontaneously begin to picture myself walking the Camino. Some would take this as the erratic wanderings of the human mind, I took it as a nudge from the Holy Spirit. And so, my journey began.

After WYD ended, 11 friends met up in Porto, Portugal, one of the many starting points of the Camino. We arrived at the city’s cathedral and received our first stamps in our credencial or passport. The first day was already difficult: we had to walk 37 km in the smoldering heat to our first albergue (pilgrim hostel). We arrived only to hear there were no beds left for us. The owner took pity and told us she had an empty storage room. We had never been more excited to sleep on a floor. Later in the evening, my sister began to get a fever and chills, and her skin turned red and bubbly. Heat stroke on the first day.

One of the women in our group experienced sharp, shooting pains in her feet every day we walked. No amount of Advil could alleviate her pain. She would grimace with every stride. When we stopped to take breaks, she would take her shoes and socks off and I’d massage her sore feet. Passersby would laugh at us and crack jokes, asking how much I charged or where the line was. But I was picturing Christ washing the feet of His disciples. He didn’t care if their feet were dirty or smelly, He did it because He loved them and came to serve.

Suffering makes prayer so much more powerful. We would pray a daily rosary while walking. Sometimes we would be so out of breath that our Hail Marys came out as wheezes. Praying the sorrowful mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays was especially poignant. The first sorrowful mystery is the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. I had visited the Holy Land in May of 2022 and had a particularly powerful experience praying within the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. This church enshrines a section of the bedrock within the Garden of Gethsemane that tradition holds to be the place where Jesus prayed before His arrest. Every time I meditated on this mystery during the Camino, I pictured myself sitting beside Jesus on the rock as He cried out, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). This mystery gave us strength to walk on, and strength to take home with us too.


While Irena was walking the Camino, I was in England feeling rather low in the aftermath of a spiritual high. While visiting Canterbury, a city I had never been to, I ran into a childhood friend from Brunei whom I had not seen or been in touch with for over two decades. Recalling with wonder the infinitesimal chance of our meeting, my friend said that our meeting was a sign of “how close God is to us always.” The deepest lesson that we learned is that even as an official pilgrimage ends, its transformative effects are not just an episode but could saturate all of life if we allow it, by paying attention to where the Holy Spirit is already at work.

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