For John Paul “JP” Alicea, a senior at The Avalon School, attending the past two World Youth Days – Panama in 2019 and Krakow, Poland in 2016 – have been among the greatest blessings of his young life, he said.

“It was just the most incredible and amazing experience,” said Alicea, of the international event begun by Pope John Paul II in 1985 that draws hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of Catholic youth pilgrims from all over the world.

In an interview with the Catholic Standard the day before his high school graduation from the all-boys K-12 Catholic school in Wheaton, Maryland, Alicea shared his memories of attending two World Youth Day celebrations.  

“There are so many people, all young, from all over the world and the only thing in common is that you are there together and your faith – all centered around Christ,” he said.

Alicea, who is named after Pope St. John Paul II, said being in the native country of his patron saint three years ago, was especially meaningful because of his great reverence for the late Polish pontiff. “He was always very joyful. I admire that about him and I try to live up to that,” he said.

He recalls a story he heard about John Paul II as a young man growing up in Wadowice, Poland. The future pope was a gifted athlete who loved to play soccer. A local team was divided into Catholics vs. Jews, and a young Karol Wojtyla would volunteer to play on the Jewish team because they lacked a goalie.

“He had this great courage even as a young man and that always stuck with me,” Alicea said. “He had this unconditional love and charity toward his neighbor.”

A resident of Poolesville, 19-year-old Alicea and his family – his dad, Hector, and his mom, Ann, and his siblings, Marisol, Tomas and Ben – are parishioners of Our Lady of the Presentation Parish. He has attended Avalon since the seventh grade and will be a freshman this fall at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he will major in engineering. He hopes one day to serve in the U.S. Navy as an engineer on a nuclear submarine.

“I’ve always been interested in that field,” he said.

Looking back on his middle and high school years spent at Avalon, Alicea, who served as captain of the varsity soccer team and Stewart House captain, said he has enjoyed the tight-knit school community, forming bonds with teachers and other Avalon families.

“It’s very family-oriented and small so you become close to all the people around you... It’s not just been a place to learn, but a second home.”

Avalon headmaster Kevin Davern praised Alicea as a model student who fosters admiration from his teachers and his classmates alike. “(JP) is interested. He’s reliable. He’s hardworking and a poised young man,” Davern said.

Throughout his years at Avalon, where daily Mass is offered and frequent confession is available, Alicea said his Catholic faith has been strengthened through his theology classes and the example of the faith-filled community.

During Avalon’s May 24 graduation ceremony, Alicea received the Puno Family Prize, the school’s highest honor in recognition of the graduating senior who best exemplifies those qualities of “great-hearted generosity and cheerful liveliness.”

Another strong influence on his Catholic faith, according to Alicea, has been his and his family’s longtime participation in Regnum Christi, an international lay Catholic movement, whose motto is “Love Christ, Serve People, Build the Church.”

In Regnum Christi, Alicea attends a monthly Bible study group, helps run leadership training camps for disadvantaged youth year round and serves missions on behalf of the District’s homeless citizens – all of which, he said, have nurtured his Catholic faith and put it into action.

“You get the opportunity to give yourself unconditionally,” he said. “It’s been the greatest experience.”

He added that growing up seeing firsthand the dedication and sacrifice of the Legionaries of Christ priests and lay missionaries of Regnum Christi, they have become his role models in faith.

“They are so dedicated, willing to sacrifice, so mission oriented,” he said. “It helps you become very willing to sacrifice and accept suffering... They give entirely to Christ. They are incredible influences.”