Throughout his pontificate, Blessed John Paul II enjoyed an incredible popularity with young Catholics. One of the great reasons for this was the emphasis he placed on World Youth Days, an initiative that he began in 1985. Through these national and international gatherings, John Paul II made it very clear: Young people are not only the future of the Church, but are also its present.
In the face of the cynicism, despair and meaninglessness so prevalent in the world today, the new evangelization at the heart of John Paul II's teaching is about instilling hope and vibrancy in the Church. The pope knew well that the world is often characterized by separation, fragmentation and loneliness. Through the gift of World Youth Days, he offered powerful opportunities to become bearers of hope, agents of community and instruments of a moral globalization.
Forming a Generation
Among the central elements of World Youth Days are worship, sacred Scripture, catechesis, the sacraments, the cross, the saints, pilgrimage, service and vocations. Each of these components contribute greatly to, and must find a place in, an effective pastoral ministry with young people.
The preparation for World Youth Days offers the Church some profound moments to deepen Christian piety and devotion. Throughout Canada, we are unlikely to forget the powerful images of the World Youth Day Cross during its historic pilgrimage in 2002. With the assistance of the Knights of Columbus, the cross traveled through more than 350 cities, towns and villages from sea to sea. Eventually, during World Youth Day in Toronto, the magnificent presentation of the Stations of the Cross was a profound witness of the Christian story in the heart of a modern city.
Young men and women need heroes and heroines today, and John Paul II gave us outstanding models of holiness and humanity. During his pontificate, he canonized 482 saints and proclaimed another 1,338 blessed. How fitting that one of the principal patrons of World Youth Day in Madrid in August 2011 was Blessed John Paul II.
Many young priests and religious have said yes to their vocations because of the personal witness of John Paul II, who urged them to Be not afraid! Many young men and women have discovered meaning in his theology of the body and have entered into marriage with deep faith and conviction. And many ordinary people have done extraordinary things because of his influence, his teaching and even his gestures.
The extraordinary impact that John Paul II had on younger generations has happily continued with his successor. In remarks at the concluding Mass of Australias World Youth Day 2008, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney thanked Pope Benedict XVI with these words: Your Holiness, the World Youth Days were the invention of Pope John Paul the Great. The World Youth Day in Cologne was already announced before your election. You decided to continue the World Youth Days and to hold this one in Sydney. We are profoundly grateful for this decision, indicating that the World Youth Days do not belong to one pope, or even one generation, but are now an ordinary part of the life of the Church. The John Paul II generation young and old alike is proud to be faithful sons and daughters of Pope Benedict.
A Youthful Church
A person may choose to speak of his or her World Youth Day experience as something in the past that brightened the shadows and monotony of life at one shining moment in history. There is, however, another perspective. The Gospel story is not about Camelot moments but about Magnificat moments, constantly inviting Christians to take up Marys hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the ways that Almighty God breaks through human history here and now. In other words, the Christian life is not nourished simply by memories, however good and beautiful they may be. The resurrection of Jesus is not a memory of a distant event in the past, but is the Good News that continues to be fulfilled.
We must be honest and admit that World Youth Days offer no panacea or quick fix to the problems of our times, nor to the challenges facing the Church today as we reach out to younger generations. Instead, these events offer a new lens through which we look at the Church and the world, and build our common future. One thing is clear: No one could come away from Toronto, Cologne or Sydney thinking that it is possible to compartmentalize their faith or reduce it to a few rules and regulations and Sunday observances.
I cannot help but recall American Cardinal James Francis Staffords stirring words spoken to the throngs of young people gathered in and around St. Peters Square at the opening ceremonies of the Jubilee World Youth Day on August 15, 2000. Addressing a visibly moved and aging Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Stafford said, Holy Father, as you walked in the 1960s to the [Second Vatican] Councils sessions to express again the mystery of the always youthful Church, you experienced the embrace of these great colonnades many times. Today we all pray that your happiness may be full. For these youthful multitudes, now embraced by the arms of St. Peter also, are living witnesses to the Councils hope and to yours.
In this way, the cardinal beautifully expressed the mission and purpose of World Youth Days, which are a snapshot of the joy, hope and unity to which the Church is called. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his inaugural homily in 2005, [T]he Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future. World Youth Days are a reminder of this truth.
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On the Web:
For further background information, please visit the following links from Salt and Light's special World Youth Day pages at wydcentral.org
(Photo courtesy CNS/Pilar Olivares, Reuter)