World Youth Day (WYD) is so much more than an international get-together with the pope. Too often, global experiences of faith get overlooked or underestimated; other times, since these gatherings have taken place now for four decades, they are simply taken for granted within the Church. But such oversight would be a missed opportunity for everyone in the Church and around the world.
Why should we care? Three simple words: World. Youth. Day.
Let me explain:
The first reason is that WYD is truly meant for the whole world. While young adults heading to Krakow in July are the primary protagonists of this particular international gathering, the message of WYD applies to everyone – everywhere.
In fact, thanks in part to the growing accessibility of technology and social media, this pilgrimage is not limited to those who have the means to travel overseas. There are millions of young adult Catholics in the United States who can engage in WYD – through local stateside events in their parish, campus, or diocese, as well as through social media and digital communications.
The U.S. bishops and pilgrim leaders in Krakow will be engaging directly with stateside and digital pilgrims this year so that those at home in the United States are as much a part of the pilgrimage as those who boarded a plane bound for Poland.
No one is excluded – and that message is exactly what WYD offers the rest of the world. One of the frustrations many people experience during these international displays of faith is feeling left out, or feeling like they don’t matter. WYD is a chance for pilgrims to share in real time on social media a message of mercy and love that’s available to all. This message is meant not just for Catholics, Christians, or Krakow pilgrims; it is meant for the world.
There are many times when I get asked about “the kids” at WYD, and often, this feels like a dismissal – that this global experience is somehow just a “giant youth rally” not needing to be taken seriously. Such thinking is exactly why Pope St. John Paul II established the practice of WYDs: to remind the world that a gathering of young people is essential to the vibrancy of the Church and the transformation of the entire planet.
Even more, there is a significant misconception about WHO this gathering is intended for. The name alone can be misleading. The “youth” in the WYD title is actually mistranslated in English. The target audiences for these international pilgrimages are “young adults.” That is, those in their late teens, twenties, and into their thirties. In 2016, the majority of U.S. pilgrims range from ages 18 to 30, and most diocesan groups are taking young men and women in their 20s and 30s, single and married. In other words, they aren’t “kids.”
This news is actually incredibly refreshing, considering that young adults are one of the most disconnected groups of people from the Catholic Church and the practice of the faith. Around the United States, studies show that only 17% of millennial Catholics attend church weekly, and over one-third of young millennials have no religious affiliation whatsoever.
To know that thousands of young adults from the U.S. are going to Krakow, and even more are engaging stateside or digitally, is one of the most important things that Catholics can celebrate this month. Let’s work to create local communities open to their enthusiasm so that returning pilgrims can engage in the life of the Church.
It can be easy to dismiss WYD as a “Catholic Woodstock” – a one-time festival over the course of a few days when the pope and millions of young people gather together in a large open field to pray and talk about God. But again, there is so much more.
WYD is not a “day” at all – but a pilgrimage. It includes months or years of spiritual and practical preparation, leading into years of follow-up work: putting into practice the message of WYD and the lessons learned along the way. One could compare this experience to a mountaintop journey. The events in Krakow or stateside are just the peak. And mountains are more than their highest summits.
Too often, especially in the twenty-first century, we jump from one major task to the next, hardly stopping to slow down. Sometimes WYD is reduced to another task or event in a long line of trips, events, or papal visits. Many WYD pilgrims know that the journey is so much more than that. For some, WYD inspired them to their life’s calling: to marriage, to religious life or to the priesthood, to their careers, or to simply being an active adult Catholic. WYD is a catalyst for great things yet to come. This is just one reason why I encourage people to pay attention to WYD and what might emerge from the pilgrims who return home, and who will rise to the occasion.
In a world torn apart by violence, polarization, and fear, let us heed the value of a lifelong pilgrimage: a process of accompaniment that requires time, patience, compassionate listening, and understanding – things often lacking in our world today.
It can be tempting to excuse ourselves from caring about or thinking about WYD, dismissing it for one reason or another. Yet this is a moment of grace for everyone – from the pilgrims to the rest of the world. For one week, the Church turns its attention to this special encounter. Let’s not let this moment pass us by or excuse ourselves from paying attention.
The world, especially in uncertain times and the face of tragedy and unrest, is in need of the graces that can come from WYD. It is meant for the world. It can be a mountaintop of the Catholic young adult experience. Let us pray that the end results can help heal, transform, and bring mercy and compassion into a world torn apart and hurting.
To learn more about World Youth Day, please click here.
*This post was originally published for our World Youth Day series on July 20, 2016
Paul Jarzembowski serves on the staff at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C., as the primary liaison for youth and young adult ministries and the coordinator for the United States’ delegation to World Youth Day. He has consulted with over 300 parishes, dioceses, and Catholic organizations across the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Caribbean, and has presented at the Pontifical Council for the Laity at the Vatican. Originally from the Chicagoland area, Paul has worked in parish and diocesan ministry and served as the Executive Director of the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association. He is a graduate of Valparaiso University, where he received his undergraduate degree, and Loyola University Chicago, where he received his Master’s Degree in Pastoral Studies (and where he has served as adjunct faculty). A veteran of six (soon to be seven) World Youth Days since 1993, Paul and his wife Sarah currently live in Maryland.
As a nation, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 21st. Does this mean anything special for the Church—for Catholics, even? Catholics have much to learn and celebrate about the Baptist pastor, preacher, and prophet. The more we consider how far we have come as a nation and as a human race since Dr. King met his tragic end on April 4, 1968, the more we sense, I think, just how far we have to go to realize his Dream.
When I think of Dr. King, I think of justice. Biblical justice. To recall a famous quote (King’s paraphrase from Theodore Parker), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As our nation honors Dr. King in a few days, I think it might be wise to contemplate for a moment the role of justice in our discipleship, which is an integral aspect of our baptismal identity as priest, prophet, and king.
As a pastor and preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood deep in his bones the kerygmatic nature (from “kerygma”) of true justice. Justice is a gift of Jesus. Like all gifts and graces from God, it is meant to be multiplied and shared. Even in the most difficult times of persecution, Dr. King proclaimed the gift of justice. In his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote the words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King (who earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University) quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in defining an unjust law as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law,” and then adds a simple explanation: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1774), the great theologian of the Middle Ages and among the greatest in the history of the Church, defined justice as giving the other what is their due. Thomas Aquinas even defines “religion,” which is a virtue, as a form of justice, because it gives God the worship and adoration that is owed to him.
First, can we ask ourselves where justice is still lacking in our world and in our own Church insofar as it is, alongside its spiritual identity, an institution composed of fallible, sinful human beings? Any lack of justice is a sure sign that we, the Church, have become adept in talking about the Gospel but have yet to take living it just as seriously. In her ongoing task of renewal, the Church must recover a robustly biblical, prophetic vision and conviction that justice is not accessory to the Gospel. Fortunately, in my own observations and ministry, I have seen that many young Christians are mending the gap that seems to have developed between “social justice Christians” and “liturgy and doctrine Christians.” This distinction is foreign to Aquinas and King, and the extent to which we buy into this split is the sign that we have allowed our faith to be compromised by the politics of the day. To offer one way of restoring this divide, in his letter Dr. King writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” What if we thought about our baptismal garment, symbolic of putting on the life of Christ, as also the Church’s “garment of destiny”? Salvation and justice are the garment that clothes the body of Christ, the Church.
One way of looking at Dr. King’s quote about the moral arc is to see it as a challenge that is not “way out there” in the universe, but as an invitation to bend and mend our personal lives toward justice. What might it imply to bend our lives? A change of habit or lifestyle, resisting our initial unkind or selfish response or natural inclination, and going out of our way to change the trajectory of our relationship with other people, our nation, and even creation. This is the message of “integral ecology” Pope Francis teaches in his encyclical letter Laudato Si. Dr. King saw God’s providential hand at work on a cosmic level, and as Catholics, we recognize the need as disciples to participate in God’s grace, and that includes justice. Authentic justice takes work, effort, struggle, and at times—as many true prophets in Scripture and history have experienced—persecution. Not all of us are called to create justice in the same way, yet we are all called to create justice in some way.
Question for Reflection: What is one concrete step you can take to help create a more just situation in your family, school, workplace, or other sphere of influence today?
To learn more about Catholic Social Teaching, please click here.
Evan Ponton is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Baltimore currently in formation at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.
Have you ever wondered why the Church decided to celebrate Mary, as Mother of God, on the first day of each calendar year? After all, we’re still in the midst of Christmas! Isn’t this season already busy and full of Feast Days and devotions? Before she could be revealed as the Immaculate Conception, or celebrated as Our Lady of Fatima, Lourdes, or Guadalupe, or even honored as Lady Poverty by St. Francis, Mary first had to accept God’s will for her in salvation history in order to become the mother of the savior who was born on Christmas Day.
In St. Luke’s Gospel, Mary is first hailed as God’s “favored one!” If this title, bestowed by the Almighty’s messenger, wasn’t honor enough, Mary would later receive the even greater title of “Mother of God.” Her cousin St. Elizabeth would confer this title upon her with the words, “the mother of my Lord.” First, of course, Mary had to agree to what God asked of her! Mary may not have understood just how great the decision was that she made, but, despite her youth, she nevertheless had the great gift of faith in God. Because of her infinite trust in God and her famed fiat, we can definitively venerate Mary, the Mother of God, and ask for her intercession.
Mary fulfills a unique role in the Mystery of Christ and the Church. Hailed as Theotokos (literally, “God Bearer”) by the Church in 431 at the First Council of Ephesus, Mary’s title reflects not only her role in salvation history, but also asserts the divinity of Christ. Just as the moon does not bear its own light but instead reflects the light from the sun, Mary entirely reflects the brilliance and grace of God. While a universal celebration on October 11 of the feast of the “Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary” was not declared by the Church until 1931 by Pope Pius XI, history records similar celebrations as part of the Christmas octave as early as the 13th or 14th century in Rome and Spain. Later celebrations developed in the 18th century in Portugal, Brazil, and Algeria and continued to take root around the world. After this great feast was finally moved to the first day of January by Pope St. John XXIII (in his 1960 revision of the liturgical calendar and rites), the Church would, at the Council Second Vatican, reaffirm Mary’s place in the Church Universal:
Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved. She is “the mother of the members of Christ... having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head.”… The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother.
Even more recently, Pope Francis reflected upon why Mary is thus honored as the Mother of God and not just the Mother of Jesus:
From the moment that our Lord became incarnate in Mary, and for all time, he took on our humanity. There is no longer God without man; the flesh Jesus took from his Mother is our own, now and for all eternity. To call Mary the Mother of God reminds us of this: God is close to humanity, even as a child is close to the mother who bears him in her womb.
As we continue our celebration of Christmas, let us consider how, in His mother, God the Son was made Incarnate not only to be with us, but also to be like us! The Blessed Mother, seen in every nativity scene, faithfully watches over the infant in the manger as the Mother of God and also as mother to each of us! She does so with great love, silently in her heart (cf. Luke 2:51). In Mary we find what really matters—not only during the Christmas season, but in the whole of the Christian life. As her children, may we look upon Mary with love and faithfully call upon her intercession with great affection.
Thomas Wong is a young professional in Washington, D.C.