When Hannah Rothwell decided to attend World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland in 2016, she was a 19-year-old atheist who did not know anyone else going. Now, she makes regular pilgrimages from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to religious sites in Washington.

Though her parents are Catholic, Rothwell –a senior at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg – had stopped believing in the faith at a young age, because, “there were a lot of questions I was running into that I just was not finding adequate answers for,” she said.

But when she got a surprise check in the mail for $3,000, she decided that she wanted to travel, and World Youth Day was the first idea that popped into her mind, even though she knew very little about it.

“So I go to World Youth Day as an atheist, and I just loved it,” she said. “It was so vibrant and everyone was so passionate. There were so many young people dancing in the street…but none of it really gave me that change of heart… I can appreciate the objective beauty of all of this and I can appreciate how much everybody loves this, but I didn’t have that same love for God that everybody else had there.”

Even during the evening of Eucharistic Adoration that left many World Youth Day participants in tears, Rothwell said she left early because it did not mean anything to her.

That changed on the second to last day of her World Youth Day experience.

Rothwell was walking back to the hostel where she was staying around midnight, when she passed a man sitting on a park bench who appeared to be drunk and unconscious. When she tried to nudge him, he did not respond, and as she was growing concerned, another guy on a bicycle came by and suggested that they pray a Hail Mary for him.

They agreed to wait and make sure that the man was okay, and as they were talking, Rothwell discovered that although they were from completely opposite sides of the United States – he was from Oregon and she was from northern Virginia – there were a lot of striking coincidences between the two.

“There are so many coincidences that are all so particular to me and so particular to my heart that I have never told anyone and they are all coming together at this one moment, and I just knew. I was like, ‘That’s God. That has to be God,’” said Rothwell.

When her new friend found out that Rothwell was not Catholic, he laughed and asked her, “What is holding you back?”

Rothwell was surprised, because when she had told other Catholics she did not share their faith, it had been met with a response along the lines of, “Tell me why you are wrong so I can fix you,” she said.

“I had never had it presented like that – presented like it was an inevitability that I would fall in love with God,” said Rothwell. “Without even thinking about it, the words just came out of my mouth, and I just said, ‘I’m afraid.’”

She told him she was afraid because she had been surrounded by people who were “so Catholic,” doing things like holding competitions for who could translate Latin phrases the fastest, and she felt like it wasn’t worth trying, because she would never be that good at being Catholic.

But he told her, “Guess what? None of that matters. The only thing that matters is that God is real, and He loves you.”

Shortly afterward, he asked her if she wanted to go to Confession, and they walked the streets searching for a priest. She went to Confession for the first time in what she estimated to be eight years, and when she told the priest that she could not remember all of her sins, he just said, “That’s okay. For your penance, say three Hail Marys.”

At first she was surprised, because she felt that she deserved more than that penance, but said, “I realized later that it is not about how many Hail Marys you say; it is about the fact that you were willing to come to God and admit that you were wrong.”

When it was time for Rothwell to part ways with her new friend, he gave her a yellow wristband with the name of his parish group, and wrote a note in her phone telling her: “Jesus loves you and he is the lover and guide of your life. Loving him will hurt, but it will be beautiful. Love is real. God is real. Don't forget to give him a smile!”

The next morning when she woke up and questioned if the whole experience was real, she looked at that wristband and knew that it was.

“That all happened. I met God and am absolved of my sins,” she said. “From that moment on I have never looked back.”

When she returned to the United States, she enrolled in RCIA and a few months later attended a World Youth Day Unite event at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, which was designed to be a reunion and a continued faith experience for young adults who had attended World Youth Day in the past.

“I fell in love with the JPII Shrine,” she said. “It is my second favorite place on earth next to Krakow.”

After that day, Rothwell began making regular pilgrimages back to that shrine to see the exhibit about St. John Paul II’s life, and also began going to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. Even though she believes that God can hear her prayers no matter where she is, she said for her, the act of making a pilgrimage is “an expression of faith.”

“It is saying, ‘God I trust you so much that I want to come and be with you . . . I want to inconvenience myself,” she said. “I want to leave everything else behind so that I can come and follow you.’”

This year, she will once again make a longer pilgrimage when she travels to Panama to experience her second World Youth Day – this time entirely alone, but fueled by her newfound faith.

“I’m just ready to be surprised and to see whatever God has in store for me,” she said.