This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of the closing celebrations of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.
As I remember vividly the great event, one image seems to dominate: the rather ferocious wind and storm that rocked Downsview Park on Sunday morning, July 28, 2002. The frightening storm ripped off part of the roof of the largest stage ever constructed in North America and drenched the more than 850,000 young people encamped on a former military base and runway. It soaked over 600 bishops and cardinals and even the Pope as we brought him out on stage for the mass. Everything on stage was set to flight - bishops' mitres, books, music, altar cloths, chairs!
For me and for many, this was the wind of Pentecost that we hear about in the Acts of Apostles, Chapter 2. And yet, in the midst of this storm, the nations of the earth - at least 172 of them represented together on that field - understood one another as they gathered.
On the shores of Lake Ontario, the Church was experiencing a rebirth. More than anything, it was the wind and the trees that served as privileged witnesses of those young pilgrims who graced our land and our Church in July 2002.
The trees of University Avenue extended their branches in a loving, protective embrace over half a million people on that unforgettable Friday night, July 26, during an incredibly moving Way of the Cross. One of the amazing things that happened was that the world's media - over 4,000 people - came to Toronto and climbed our trees to peer down onto this incredible story unfolding before them. The image that remains engraved in my mind from all of that frenetic activity is the New Testament story of Zaccheus. The media climbed the trees and watched. And one by one the skeptical and the curious climbed down from the branches and became part of the great pilgrimage. They came to see the Pope; they ended up meeting Jesus, and a church that is alive and young.
We may choose to speak of WYD as a past event that brightened the shadows and monotony of our lives at one shining moment in history in 2002. Against a world background of terror and fear, economic collapse and ecclesial scandals, World Youth Day presented an alternative vision of compelling beauty. Some have even called those golden days of July 2002 a "Camelot" moment. That is one way to consider the WYD: fading memories of an extraordinary, golden moment in Canadian history.
There is, however, another way: the gospel way - not "Camelot" but "Magnificat" - an invitation to take up Mary's hymn of praise and thanksgiving at the ways God breaks through human history here and now. At the conclusion of his homily during the closing mass of World Youth Day at Downsview Park on Sunday, July 28, 2002, Pope John Paul II spoke these words to the immense assembly of young people:
"Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. You are our hope, the young are our hope. .Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son."
These words continue to move and inspire millions of people. Could we desire anything more than these thoughts and words as our own Magnificat hymn of praise, thanksgiving and consolation four years later?
In my office, I have a photo of the Inukshuk Monument at the entrance to Ontario Place on Lakeshore Boulevard. For centuries, Inukshuks have kept vigil over the land and, like lighthouses in an icy desert, they remain a powerful symbol of safe harbour in an uncertain world. This is the role that Jesus plays in the life of Christians: he shows his followers the way.
Since 1984, the World Youth Days have been true navigational guides for millions of young people throughout the world, inviting young pilgrim participants to become beacons of light and hope, and teaching them to season the world with justice and peace.
The World Youth Day 2002 held in Toronto, a city known from its origins to be "the meeting place," invited young people to be salt of the earth and light of the world. The Toronto Inukshuk monument at Ontario Place on Lake Ontario, is a reminder of the immense, wonderful gathering of young people and Pope John Paul II held on the shores of Lake Ontario from July 23-28, 2002.