Who was it that claimed the Church is irrelevant to young people? Who was it that claimed young people did not seek or yearn for Christ? My experience of World Youth Day (WYD) has shown me otherwise. WYD is the largest gathering of Catholic young adults in a series of events sponsored by the Church. First initiated by St. John Paul II in 1985, WYD is celebrated at the diocesan level annually and at the international level every two to three years at different locations around the world. People do not attend as tourists, but rather as pilgrims, since the nature of the composite events are religious in character. Typically, pilgrims will arrange lodging in the host city before participating in the opening ceremonies, catechesis, and cultural exhibitions. Taking advantage of all the host city has to offer, pilgrims will usually also spend time exploring the region (especially churches), shopping for religious souvenirs, and tasting the local cuisine… and very rarely alone! As the locals are quick to notice, the host city will be absolutely inundated with pilgrim groups, each identified by various flags, shirts, and chants. In spite of the inconveniences experienced (such as crowds, traffic, and long lines), for the most part, the locals are excited to greet so many peoples; local businesses are especially happy to cater to the pilgrims’ needs.
The focus of WYD events centers around the arrival of the pope: everyone wants to hear what the Holy Father has to say to the young pilgrims at various sites and events. Traditionally, the Holy Father will address crowds from his residence, during Masses, Stations of the Cross, and the overnight vigil during which millions camp out together in prayer. The conclusion of the Vigil Mass the following day signals the end of the official WYD program, though at that time the next host city is formally announced.
I’ve been blessed to have been able to attend two World Youth Days, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013 and in Kraków, Poland this year. So much more than a sightseeing trip, WYD for me has been all about seeing how God’s love for us manifests itself in each culture. Encountering millions of young believers (in addition to curious observers) who are inherently joyful in their witnesses to the Lord, I am especially delighted to see them interact with each other through songs, chants, prayers, and games during scheduled events or out in the streets. For me, some of the most powerful witnesses given happened outside of the official program (though seeing millions kneel before the Blessed Sacrament with lit candles during the vigil was indescribably moving). I remember seeing a group of Italian pilgrims run over to help a local disabled man carry groceries up a number of street stairs; another group immediately rushed to comfort a female pilgrim who had broken down during our 12 kilometer (about 7.5 miles) hike from the site of the overnight vigil. Simple acts of love like that really touched me as being authentically Christian: to love in even the smallest matters and, by doing so, answering the call given at the end of Mass, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Pope Francis gave many beautiful and encouraging addresses to those assembled in Poland, but I was most impacted by an action of his. At the beginning of Mass at the great Shrine of Czestochowa, Pope Francis missed a stair step and fell, thankfully uninjured. He later explained that, "I was watching (an image of) the Madonna, and I forgot the step." He literally fell for Our Lady. When I heard the news, I remembered a similar experience of my tripping on the stairs upon seeing a lovely peer of mine go by. To have that ineffably tender and peaceful focus on the Blessed Mother, to be in awe of the Virgin, reflects the perfect love God has for her and for each of us.
WYD may have ended, but the mission entrusted to the young pilgrims by Pope Francis still burns in our hearts:
Launch us on the adventure of mercy! Launch us on the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls, barriers and barbed wire. Launch us on the adventure of helping the poor, those who feel lonely and abandoned, or no longer find meaning in their lives. Send us, like Mary of Bethany, to listen attentively to those we do not understand, those of other cultures and peoples, even those we are afraid of because we consider them a threat. Make us attentive to our elders, as Mary of Nazareth was to Elizabeth, in order to learn from their wisdom.
May each of us always endeavor to accomplish it!
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