CARNAC — Last week's World Youth Day in Brazil, attended by Pope Francis himself, drew more than three million young Catholics from all over the world. But not every young faithful could afford to travel to South America, and that left some youthful French believers to turn to projects launched by their local dioceses. 

While the Pope and his tender flock were 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) away, Carnac's “Holy Beach” evangelization mission, which together with Lourdes and Saint-Malo received the 2013 World Youth Day stamp of approval, hoped to stir and inspire unwitting vacationers and sunbathers.

About 50 young missionaries met here, in this western French city of 4,900 inhabitants — much more during the holidays — located between the Quiberon peninsula and the Gulf of Morbihan, south of Britanny. Aged 20 to 30, they went from beach to beach to preach the Gospel.

The apprentices listened very carefully to two priests, writing down their advice. “Never corner someone when you talk to them,” Abbot Vincent Hauttecoeur explained. “You have to give the person a way out.” The young missionaries had many questions: “When should we introduce ourselves as young Catholics? What words should we use to talk about Jesus?”

A few hours before leaving for the beach to meet the vacationers, they began to worry. "I couldn't go to Rio, but I felt that the Holy Spirit wanted me here,” said Capucine, a 21-year-old communications manager. She heard about the missions on the beach during a trip to Israel last summer.

Like Capucine, many of them were voicing their faith publicly for the first time. For them, it was a new step in their lives as believers, more proof of the strong bond between them and the Church.

His hands still shaking a bit, Martin distributed leaflets inviting the people on the beach to join the missionaries for the daily mass. Around him, people seemed curious, amused — or clearly disapproving. The 25-year-old, who's just become a civil servant, has become increasingly involved with his religion over the past couple of months. “I used to live my faith in a passive way,” he said. “But now I know that it is something I cannot keep for myself. It may upset some, but all the same, people need to know I'm not afraid of expressing my faith.”

A radical approach

In a country where 48% of Catholics who practice on a regular basis are 65 or older, young believers are critical. “Our mission is to show that being Catholic nowadays is everything but ridiculous,” explained Louis. This young seminarian will leave France to do humanitarian work in Asia next year — but before that, between Carnac's beach towels and sand castles, he and the other “messengers of God” must face new obstacles.

The criticism of French Minister of Justice Christine Taubira’s support for same-sex marriage has brought a lot of tension. “Now, when we introduce ourselves as Catholics, people call us homophobics,” Cécile said. The 21-year-old law student hasn't missed a single protest against gay marriage. And this isn't the only prejudice against the young Catholics, who are often compared to Jehovah's Witnesses during their street actions.

This new generation of believers, born “too late to follow John Paul II,” has followed Benedict XVI's vow of trying to awaken “asleep” Catholics to the church.

“We have to adopt a radical approach,” said William, a French-American who took holy orders as he was “about to become engaged." “I think we are also here to wake up uptight Catholics.” Louis agreed: “You can't call yourself a Christian only when it's convenient for you, before you die or when you are ill.”