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World Youth Days: Retrospect and Prospect

July 1, 2016
WYD 2000 San Pietro copy
What we learned from World Youth Day 2002 in Canada
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
In preparation for World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland later this month, I have prepared a series of reflections that I will share with you in the coming weeks. I write these thoughts from Canada, especially today on our country’s national day: “Canada Day.” I had the privilege of serving as the National Director and Chief Executive Officer of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Canada. It was a unique, unforgettable experience that changed my life and the lives of the hundreds of young adults who world closely with me in preparation of that blessed event. Fourteen years after the great event of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, we are still reaping the benefits of those blessed days when joy and hope invaded our nation, from sea to sea to sea! One of the first fruits of Canada’s international event in 2002 was the birth of Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in 2003 – a unique media platform which now enters its fourteenth year.
As we prepare for the next edition of World Youth Day in Krakow later this month, let us ask how the vision and hope of St. John Paul II have impacted our own efforts in pastoral ministry with young people. The experiences of World Youth Days in recent years have brought much new life to each of the countries where the great events have taken place. One of the important goals of World Youth Day is to instill hope and vibrancy in the church – to differ with the cynicism, despair, and meaninglessness so prevalent in the world today. Pope John Paul II knew well that our world today offers fragmentation, loneliness, alienation, and rampant globalization that exploit the poor.
What have the joy, exuberance, and creativity surrounding World Youth Days in Canada (2002), Cologne (2005), Sydney (2008), Madrid (2011) and Rio de Janiero (2013) taught us, and how have they transformed youth and young adult ministry in our local churches and dioceses? How have we initiated a “preferential option” for young people in the church today? How can we give the flavor of the gospel and the light of Christ to the world today? Let us consider seven aspects of World Youth Days. I will use our own Toronto experience as a mirror or backdrop but know that these aspects apply to each World Youth Day, no matter where it took place.
1. Pope John Paul’s biblical theme for WYD 2002 in Canada was providential and highly appropriate for our Canadian society and a world steeped in mediocrity and darkness. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). During World Youth Days, bishops and cardinals serve as teachers and catechists. Thousands of young people gather around them to hear reflections based on the Word of God, and in particular on the theme of the event. This novel invention has taken on a life of its own, becoming an intrinsic part of the celebrations. How many times was this evoked at the 2008 Synod of Bishops in Rome, that focused on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church!” The catechetical teaching sessions on Scripture have become not only a unique encounter between generations, but also an opportunity to proclaim and preach the Word of God across cultures, offering to young people concrete possibilities for living a biblically rooted life.
Does the bible play a significant part in our ministry with young people? What biblical stories and images animate our pastoral initiatives with young people? How often have we turned elsewhere to find “themes”, “ideas”, “fillers” for our work with young people, rather than drawing our deepest inspiration from biblical stories, biblical language, biblical themes that no consulting agency, pop-jargon or fleeting trend can offer?
2. World Youth Days offer deeply prayerful celebrations of the Eucharist, and opportunities to experience the Eucharistic Lord in moments of quiet prayer, adoration, communal and individual worship. Liturgies of World Youth Day are prepared and planned with great diligence, care, precision and tremendous beauty. Through these moments young people are offered privileged moments of encounter with Jesus himself. These moments are enhanced by the careful selection of liturgical music that is not in competition with the world of theatre, spectacle and the surrounding din of noise and emptiness. And yet what do we do when the young people who have experienced such tremendous moments “come down from the mountain” and return to our parish communities?
WYDCross
3. During WYD 2002 in Toronto, over 100,000 young people celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Through this sacrament Christ lets us meet him and brings out the best in us. In our pastoral work with young people, do we present this sacrament as a privileged encounter with Christ who heals, forgives and liberates us?
4. World Youth Days offer the Church profound moments to deepen our Christian piety and devotion. In Canada during 2001-2002, the historic, 43,000-km pilgrimage of the WYD Cross and the powerful presentation of the Stations of the Cross were a provocative, profound witness of the Christian story in the heart of a modern city. Many of us in Canada were convinced that if, for some reason, the World Youth Day event itself would have to be cancelled because of the horrendous results of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the pilgrimage of the Cross had already worked its miracles across our vast land and united the Church in ways that nothing was ever able to do previously.
5. During his pontificate, John Paul II proclaimed 1,338 Blesseds and 482 Saints. Young adults need heroes and heroines today, and the Pope gave us outstanding models of holiness and humanity. Nine young blesseds and saints were patrons of WYD 2002; several more were patrons for WYD 2005. Pope Benedict XVI spoke to that great assembly of over one million young people gathered in prayer at Marienfeld in 2005, exclaiming: “The saints…are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world.”
Is the teaching of the Blesseds and Saints an integral part of our catechesis, Evangelization, formation of young people? In a world that desperately seeks authentic heroes and heroines, how often do we present the Blesseds and Saints as the real role models for young people today?
6. One of the significant contributions of World Youth Day 2002 to the universal Church and to young people throughout the world was the highly successful Vocations Pavilion at Exhibition Place in Toronto. The security personnel informed us that 50-55,000 young people visited the pavilion each day for the week of World Youth Day 2002. Subsequent World Youth Days in various countries followed the example of Toronto in offering very visible and participatory vocation centres at their celebrations or World Youth Day.
The phenomenon of World Youth Days has become a powerful seedbed for vocations to the priesthood, consecrated life, and lay ecclesial ministries. Whether it is because those who have already sensed a call choose to attend World Youth Days out of their strong faith life, or because World Youth Day awakens young adults for the first time to the special call of God, World Youth Days can be a moment of life-changing discernment.
Over the past fourteen years, I have received hundreds of letters, testimonies, witnesses from young people speak convincingly that their vocations were born at large vigil ceremonies with John Paul II, during the Sacrament of Reconciliation at World Youth Days and in the midst of catechesis sessions. A whole new generation of young adults identifies the World Youth Day experiences to be critical in their discernment process. In working with Catholic young adults, we have the responsibility and obligation to raise the subject of priestly, religious, and lay ministry vocations with openness, conviction, pastoral sensitivity and common sense.
7. I would like to refer to this point as “overcoming the crisis of ideologies” that has plagued my generation and several other generations. Excessive tensions arising from church politics, gender issues, liturgical practices, language, false interpretations of the Second Vatican Council – all of these influence today's candidates for ordained ministry, religious life, and pastoral involvement in the Church. The grumblings, discontent, cynicism, fatigue, unfair labeling and pigeonholing of others, the lack of charity and hope of my generation and older generations rise to fever pitch, and keep us blinded to a new generation of young people who might be much more serious about Church, God and discipleship of Jesus than we are! Many of my generation do not wish to admit this fact.
How many times have I heard university chaplains, vocation directors, formation directors and youth ministers express fears and even disdain over the pious and devotional practices of today’s generation of young people. Such piety and devotion are not to be downplayed or dismissed in vocational and priestly formation work. They can indeed become a creative foundation upon which we can build for the future. Piety and devotion can be springboards to mature faith.
JP II WYD 2002 flags Wittman copy
World Youth Day does not belong to one Pope
In remarks at the concluding Mass of World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia, Cardinal George Pell thanked Pope Benedict XVI for his presence at Australia’s great event. Sydney’s Archibshop said that World Youth Day acts as an antidote to images of Catholicism as in decline or wracked by controversy. "It shows the church as it really is, alive with evangelical energy." Your Cardinal, George Pell concluded his address to Pope Benedict XVI at Randwick Race Course with these prophetic and affirming 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.”
World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto was not a show, a rave party, a protest, or photo opportunity. It was an invitation and a proposal for something new. Against a global background of terror and fear, economic collapse in many countries, and ecclesial scandals, World Youth Day 2002 presented a bold, alternative vision of compelling beauty, hope, and joy… a vision and energy.
We may choose to speak of our World Youth Days as something in the past - that brightened the shadows and monotony of our lives at one shining moment in history in 2002 or in 2005, 2008, 2011 or 2013. Some may wish to call those golden days of July 2002 or subsequent summers “Camelot” moments. That is one way to consider the WYD - fading memories of extraordinary moments in national histories.
There is, however, another way: the Gospel way. The Gospel story is not about “Camelot” but about “Magnificat”, constantly inviting Christians to take up Mary’s hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the ways that Almighty God breaks through human history here and now. This way is not only nourished by memories, however good and beautiful they may be. The resurrection of Jesus is not a memory of a distant, past event, but it is Good News that continues to be fulfilled today - here and now. The Christian story is neither folklore nor nostalgia - a trip down triumphal church lane. JPII TR AIrport [MS] copy
As we in Canada continue to bask in the glorious light of the summer of 2002 in Canada, we must be honest and admit that World Youth Days offer no panacea or quick fix to the problems and challenges of our times, or the challenges facing the Church today as we reach out to younger generations. Instead, World Youth Days offer a new framework and new lenses through which we look at the Church and the world, and build our common future. One thing is clear: no one could go away from Toronto 2002 thinking that it is possible to compartmentalize the faith or reduce it to a few rules and regulations and Sunday observances.
World Youth Day 2002 and the visit of St. John Paul II brought Toronto not gold, silver and bronze medals, but something even greater: it gave Canada its soul. Through those blessed days, we experienced once again the fulfillment of the Second Vatican Council’s desires: together we were witnesses to the Council’s hopes and dreams for the Church and for humanity, when every nation, every tribe, came together to worship the Lord. Now let us pray together that the Generations of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, will truly become the Spirit’s joyful witnesses to the ends of the earth… that they may be truly become Catholic, universal, open to the world.
PRAYER FOR WYD KRAKOW 2016
“God, merciful Father,
in your Son, Jesus Christ, you have revealed your love
and poured it out upon us in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter,
We entrust to you today the destiny of the world
and of every man and woman”.
We entrust to you in a special way
young people of every language, people and nation:
guide and protect them as they walk the complex paths
of the world today
and give them the grace to reap abundant fruits
from their experience of the Krakow World Youth Day.
Heavenly Father,
grant that we may bear witness to your mercy.
Teach us how to convey the faith to those in doubt,
hope to those who are discouraged,
love to those who feel indifferent,
forgiveness to those who have done wrong
and joy to those who are unhappy.
Allow the spark of merciful love
that you have enkindled within us
become a fire that can transform hearts
and renew the face of the earth.
Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us.
Saint John Paul II, pray for us.
Saint Faustina, pray for us.

Credit: Bill Witman and World Youth Day 2002 Archives.
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