Five years ago, the world came to Toronto to take part in what was the largest celebration ever held in our country. Toronto played host to the 17th International World Youth Day.
And along with young people from 172 nations who descended upon our city came an elderly and infirm Pope who, defying all odds and stunning all critics, kicked off the week as he slowly walked down the steps of that Alitalia plane at Pearson International Airport on July 23, 2002, instead of using the lift prepared for him.
The eyes of the world were fixed on that old man dressed in the white robes, step by step. The Pope of great surprises, the pastor, actor, shepherd, courageous leader, and friend of young people, entered a representative assembly of the nation and the Church in Canada. World Youth Day began on a grand note. The Holy Father spoke these words to Government officials and the people of Canada at the welcome ceremony that day:
"Canadians are heirs to an extraordinarily rich humanism, enriched even more by the blend of many different cultural elements... In a world of great social and ethical strains, and confusion about the very purpose of life, Canadians have an incomparable treasure to contribute -- on condition that they preserve what is deep, and good and valid in their own heritage."
The genius of Pope John Paul II was evident in his granting World Youth Day to Canada in 2002. Toronto may have lost the Olympic bid, but it struck gold with World Youth Day. Canada needed this event to call us back to our deeply Christian origins and heritage.
The sheer numbers of people taking part in the WYD 2002 ceremonies astounded all of us. At the welcome ceremony for Pope John Paul II, more than 350,000 people packed Exhibition Place on a Thursday afternoon. The following evening, University Avenue was transformed into the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem as more than half a million people took part in the Stations of the Cross in the modern city. CBC said the worldwide television audience that night was more than one billion people in 160 countries of the world.
The moving candlelight Saturday evening vigil at Downsview Park drew together over 600,000 people. And the concluding Papal mass on Sunday five years ago, with its atmospheric special effects, gathered 850,000 people on the tarmac of a former military base.
Through World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II unleashed something new and unthinkable some 25 years ago. The phenomenon of World Youth Day has become a fertile seedbed for vocations to the priesthood, consecrated life, marriage and lay ministries in the Church.
Even the most cynical among us could not help but be impressed or moved by the streams of young people who expressed their joy at being Catholic Christians in a complex and war-torn world. The events of July 2002 were not 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.
Against a world background of global terror and fear, economic collapse in many countries and ecclesial scandals, World Youth Day presented an alternative vision of compelling beauty.
A timely reminder
The summer of 2002 woke up the country and the Church in Canada, reminding us that the Church is alive and young. As we bask in the glorious memories of World Youth Day in Toronto, one thing is clear for the Catholic Church in Canada after the summer of 2002: We have much work to do in reaching out to young people across this vast land.
July 2002 was not simply the accomplishment of some fete; it was the beginning of a new adventure of faith and hope for the entire Canadian Church. The memories of 2002 give us the courage to set out into the deep and help future generations to "preserve what is deep, and good and valid in their own heritage."