It had rained throughout the afternoon as my group made its way to Mile High Stadium to welcome Pope John Paul II to WYD. Despite the weather, we sang and we prayed. Then in the distance came a rumble – but it wasn’t thunder. It was the helicopter carrying the Holy Father. As he stepped into his waiting popemobile and began to drive around the stadium, the sun burst forth from the clouds, the rain ceased, and a rainbow appeared in the sky above.
It has been over 23 years since that humid August day in Colorado, but those precise details have stuck with me. It was at that moment that I heard the Holy Father speak to my heart. He said:
Jesus has called each one of you to Denver for a purpose: You must live these days in such a way that, when the time comes to return home, each one of you will have a clearer idea of what Christ expects of you. Each one must have the courage to go and spread the Good News…into the next century.
From that point onward, the trajectory of my life changed. I decided I was no longer going to just be a participant going to church and attending a youth or young adult group here and there. Instead, I was going to take the Holy Father’s advice and step into a leadership role in my faith, in my community, or wherever I was needed.
Though I could not put a name on it at the time, I had made the conscious choice to become a “missionary disciple.”
That decision put me on a path toward working for the Church. I was soon leading pilgrimages of youth and young adults to World Youth Days in Toronto (2002), Cologne (2005), and Madrid (2011), as well as organizing a stateside WYD celebration in my diocese in solidarity with the pilgrims in Sydney (2008).
Every time I made a journey to WYD, whether as a pilgrim or a leader, my worldview changed a bit more. On each successive trip, God seemed to have something new to tell me about my life, my faith, or my work. Often, when I least expected it, I had a wonderful encounter with the sacred that challenged me and called me to go even deeper in my relationship with Christ, the Church, and those around me.
Today I am blessed to accompany the bishops of the United States to the international World Youth Days and to help prepare and support the local pilgrim leaders across the nation, as well as the generations of U.S. “alumni” of past WYDs. In this unique national role, I have journeyed with 35 bishops to Rio de Janeiro in 2013 and will accompany 85 bishops to Krakow in 2016.
But no matter who I have walked alongside on the journey, where I have traveled, or what role I have played, I am still a pilgrim, just as I was over 23 years ago as a young person in Denver.
Like other pilgrims, I take time for prayer and preparation in the months leading up to each World Youth Day, carving out time to develop my own spirituality so that I might receive the grace to be able to effectively accompany and support the pilgrimage experience of others I also make the trip with some hardship and sacrifice. My preparation usually involves taking extra time away from friends and family to ensure the safety and spiritual well-being of the pilgrims or colleagues in my group, often spending long hours working behind-the-scenes on retreats, paperwork, and communications.
And every time I reach the summit of the journey during the international or stateside experiences, it is truly a mountaintop experience for me as well. Like the disciples at the Transfiguration, I, too, am transformed in new and exciting ways. I return from World Youth Day different than when I left home.
That first World Youth Day taught me another valuable lesson: it does not end when we go home. In his homily for the Closing WYD Mass in Denver in 1993, Pope John Paul II said this:
At this stage of history, the liberating message of the Gospel of Life has been put into your hands. And the mission of proclaiming it to the ends of the earth is now passing to your generation…. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops… It is you who must "go out into the byroads" and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for his people…. Young people of World Youth Day, the Church asks you to go, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to those who are near and those who are far away. Share with them the freedom you have found in Christ.
With each passing year, and as I approach Krakow, I am conscious that God always puts a new mission into my hands. The work of World Youth Day does not end on the mountaintop; it continues on in those who have returned home, infused with the Holy Spirit, integrating mercy, faith, and compassion into their everyday lives… and preaching it from the rooftops.
What will your mission be? Where will you be sent? Who will you invite to the banquet? What will you say and do? Those answers will be as unique and special for you as they have been for me over the past two decades. May your journey be a sacred experience and a meaningful pilgrimage filled with memorable moments of encounter, accompaniment, and mission.