Fr. Thomas Rosica – Special to Sun Media
The following article appeared in the Toronto Sun on Sunday, July 28, 2002. It speaks of the arrival of Pope John Paul II in Canada for World Youth Day 2002. The Holy Father arrived ten years ago today at Pearson International Airport for his final World Youth Day.
There are “electric” moments in life … when all seems to stop and we fix our gaze on some event, some happening, some image, some person in a strange sense of admiration and awe. One such moment happened last Tuesday on a splendid, sun-drenched day as an Alitalia plane came to a halt on the runway of Pearson International Airport. I was in a line headed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and leaders of government of all levels, followed by officials of the Canadian church. The eyes of about 500 people in the huge hangar were fixed on the plane. Silence had come over the entire assembly as we waited for the Pontiff to be lowered to the ground in a specially fitted lift.
To our astonishment, the lift was not used. Pope John Paul appeared at the door of the aircraft and began a slow descent of the stairs. The eyes of the world were fixed on this elderly man, and every step was carefully measured. Then the roar of the crowd was heard inside the terminal and all across this country. John Paul did it again! The Pope of the great surprises, the pastor, the shepherd, the courageous leader, entered into this most representative assembly of the nation and the church in Canada, gathered for the formal welcoming ceremony.
All throughout the preparation process for World Youth Day 2002, I was never concerned about a no-show of the Pope at our event. I have never experienced anything quite like the airport welcome ceremony. The joy that radiated from event and that has since has permeated Toronto was clear sign to me that God is with us in a powerful way in the person of John Paul. When Monsignor Renato Boccardo, the Pope’s chief of protocol, invited me to present to the Pope 30 young people from Canada, several of whom were seriously ill, there were tears of joy on the faces of nearly everyone in the hangar.
I noticed that there were few dry eyes in the huge media pool that was present at the airport. Last Tuesday was truly a moment of grace and blessing for Canada. And those blessings have increased throughout the past week.
The genius of Pope John Paul was clearly evident in his granting World Youth Day to Canada this summer. Canada and Toronto need World Youth Day to wake us up, infuse us with joy, remind us of our gifts and qualities of hospitality, tolerance and peacemaking that have characterized this nation. But Canada also needed World Youth Day to call us back to our deeply Christian origins in this country. It is only when a nation and a society reclaim their original identity that they can ever hope to become authentically multicultural, tolerant, and open to others.
In the streets of Toronto we have witnessed rivers of joy flowing abundantly as young people from 175 countries make their way to over 130 catechetical sites. Cardinals, bishops, priests and sisters made themselves at home in our great city and the image of the church that has been presented through the media speaks of life, youthfulness and joy. One night this past week, I visited all of the television media booths at the immense press centre set up at Exhibition Place to accommodate the 3,800-plus accredited journalists to the event just to say thank you” for telling the WYD story in a magnificent way.
When I walked into one of the major American TV network offices, those present burst into applause. One senior woman producer blurted out: “This is one of the most beautiful stories we have ever covered. Thanks for helping to arrange it.”
Even the most cynical among us cannot help but be moved by the streams of young people who have expressed their joy at being Catholic Christians in a complex and shadow-filled world. All of this has not been a show, nor a protest or photo opportunity staged by some big marketing company hired by the Catholic church to restore its image in the light of scandals and difficulties. The World Youth Day is a gift from God given to Canada and Toronto — to wake us up and remind us that we are called to be happy and to be peacemakers in a troubled world.
And north of Toronto, on Strawberry Island in beautiful Lake Simcoe, there has been tremendous joy as Peter’s successor found rest and relaxation, energy and peace at the summer residence of the Basilian Fathers, my own congregation. The Pope spent a very restful week on the Island, and managed to make so many others happy, especially the residents of the Huronia Regional Centre who were out in paddle boats when his boat went by. On Friday, along with Archbishop Anthony Meagher, I took 14 young people from 12 different countries to the Island to lunch with the Pontiff. Many have nicknamed Lake Simcoe “the Holy Sea” this past week.
The great irony of all of this incredible story is the fact that the catalyst of the whole adventure of World Youth Day is an old man, a warrior, a fighter, a shepherd and courageous leader who has come to Canada to help us rediscover our own youthfulness, hope and joy. His presence among us has brought a few tears, hundreds of thousands of hearts that have been deeply touched, and lives that will be forever changed.
I will never be able to visit Exhibition Place again without hearing the songs and laughter, seeing the crowds and the flags. Nor will I ever walk up University Ave. without envisioning the thousands of people on their knees on the Way of the Cross. Downsview Park and the Bombardier airstrip will remain for me one of the biggest cathedrals in the world … and Strawberry Island and Morrow Park will have a glow around them for the rest of their days.
All of this because an old man haltingly descended the stairs of a plane in Toronto on July 23, 2002 and kicked off World Youth Day 2002. He came among us to embrace the youth of the world who had responded his invitation to “Come, and tell the world of the happiness you have found in meeting Jesus Christ, of your desire to know him better, of how you are committed to proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth!”