Remembering World Youth Day July 23-28, 2002
Ten Years Later
World Youth Day came to Canada at a low ebb of our history. The backdrop included the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and a world steeped in terror and war; a Church enmeshed in a major sex abuse scandal; an aged, feeble pontiff; and a Canadian culture of religious indifference and increasing secularity.
During July 2002, several hundred thousand young people from 172 nations descended upon Toronto—and with them came the elderly and infirm Pope John Paul II. The sheer numbers of people taking part in the four days of events astounded us. More than 350,000 people packed Exhibition Place on Thursday afternoon, July 25, for the opening ceremony with Pope John Paul II.
We are unlikely to forget the powerful images of the World Youth Day Cross during its historic pilgrimage across Canada in 2001-2002. The cross traveled to more than 350 cities, towns and villages, from sea to sea to sea. Eventually, during World Youth Day in Toronto, the provocative presentation of the Stations of the Cross was a profound witness of the Christian story in the heart of a modern city. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation told us that the worldwide television audience that night was more than a billion people in 160 countries.
The spectacular Saturday evening candlelight vigil at Downsview Park drew together more than 600,000 people, and the concluding papal Mass on Sunday, with its atmospheric special effects, gathered 850,000 people at a former military base.
World Youth Day 2002 and the visit of Pope John Paul II brought us not gold, silver and bronze medals, but something even greater: it gave Canada its soul. We may choose to speak nostalgically of World Youth Day 2002 as a unique, magnificent event of the past. There is, however, another way. The Gospel story is not about “Camelot” moments but about “Magnificat” moments, constantly inviting us to take up Mary’s hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the ways that Almighty God breaks through human history. The resurrection of Jesus is not a memory of a distant event in the past, but is Good News that continues to be fulfilled in our midst.
During the Angelus prayer at Downsview Park on Sunday July 28, 2002, Pope John Paul II summed up beautifully the sentiments of millions of people who were touched in some way by World Youth Day 2002:
As we prepare to return home, I say, in the words of Saint Augustine: ‘We have been happy together in the light we have shared. We have really enjoyed being together. We have really rejoiced. But as we leave one another, let us not leave Him.’
What remains with us a decade later is the extraordinary encounter between Jesus and his young friends – a meeting of young pilgrims and their beloved, elderly friend in a white robe, who journeyed from the banks of the Tiber to the shores of Lake Ontario for a meeting, a kairos moment. We are slowly beginning to understand the full impact of World Youth Day 2002. It was a timed-release capsule of divine energy and creativity that continues to bear much fruit in our land. We continue to cherish the brilliant light that it cast upon Toronto, Ontario and all of Canada at a moment when we needed to be buoyed up and encouraged to "set out into the deep."
May the mighty winds of that Pentecost event in 2002 continue to blow furiously throughout the Church in Canada, enabling us to always make room in our Church for young people who are Christ's guarantee of endless joy and youthfulness. May the memories of that blessed summer inspire us to be salt for the earth and light for the world.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
Former National Director and CEO, World Youth Day 2002
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
Photo Credit: CNS Photo Arturo Mari (top), Nancy Wiechec (side)