"As we leave one another, let us not leave Him...”
In various parts of the country this past weekend, diocesan celebrations were held to mark the 10th anniversary of World Youth Day 2002. The Vancouver celebration took place on Saturday evening with many young people from that archdiocese gathered together with Archbishop Michael Miller, C.S.B., for mass and a picnic. That scene was repeated around the country. On Saturday morning, July 28, 2012, nearly 80 of us who formed the National Team of World Youth Day 2002 gathered together in the Chapel of the Cardinal Flahiff Basilian Centre in Toronto to celebrate a mass of thanksgiving to mark the tenth anniversary of World Youth Day 2002. The impetus and inspiration for the celebration came from staff members from many parts of Canada who simply desired to get together and give thanks. Those who joined us flocked to Toronto from nearly every corner of the country - Vancouver, Quebec City, and from South America the United States, just to be together. With them were over 25 babies... the scene looked like a massive Day Care Centre! We were blessed to have with us Fr. Robert Gendreau of Montreal, who directed Toronto's now famous "Way of the Cross" on the night of July 26, 2002, as well as Deacon Pedro Guevara Mann, who headed up the Youth Festival in 2002 and is now a pillar of Salt and Light Television Network. Saturday was a day of memoray, blessing and gratitude.
As I remember vividly the great event of World Youth Day 2002, and allow it to take on its true and authentic dimensions ten years later - one image seems to dominate: that of the violent and ferocious wind and electrical storm that rocked Downsview Park on Sunday morning, July 28, 2002. It was frightening tempest that blew in from the west - nearly preventing the papal helicopter from taking off from the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent at Morrow Park where the Holy Father has spent the night. A storm that ripped off part of the roof of the largest stage ever constructed in North America. A storm that soaked the hundreds of thousands (+850,000) of young people encamped on a former military base and runway. A storm that drenched over 600 bishops and cardinals and even soaked the Pope as we brought him out on stage.
As the four young people led the Pope out into the full view of the crowd - the winds were at gale force - it was the only moment during the entire event that I was somewhat terrified. Bishops had to hang on to their air borne miters. Everything on stage was set to flight - books, music, altar cloths, chairs. Surrounded by the police chiefs of what seemed to be all of Canada, I uttered some silent prayers, begging God to let us get through this last, final hurdle and obstacle. 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 violent storm, the nations of the earth - at least 172 of them huddled together in that field - understood one another as they gathered around Peter on that July morning. This was the wind that had led the WYD Cross from sea to sea to sea, across Canada – “a mari usque ad mare”. And now on the shores of Lake Ontario, on that unforgettable morning, I believe that the Church was born again in Canada.
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 the summer of 2002. The trees of University Avenue extended their branches in a loving, protective embrace over half a million people on that memorable Friday night, July 26, 2002, as Jesus and his friends made their final walk up this majestic boulevard in the incredibly moving Via Crucis, watched by over one billion people around the world.
One of the amazing things that happened that summer ten years ago was that the media of the world - over 4000 of them - came to Toronto and Canada 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 Zacchaeus. The media climbed high in the trees and watched. And as Jesus and his hundreds of thousands of young disciples passed - one by one the skeptical, the curious and the cynical climbed down from the branches and become part of the great pilgrimage.
Many accredited journalists to the event were criticized by their more skeptical colleagues: “You went overboard, you crossed over, you lost professional objectivity - you became part of the story.” They came to see the Pope - they ended up meeting Jesus. They wept - they were moved, they made new friends. Previous theories of a young faithless, godless generation were dashed and new ones were formulated. In journalism, one may call this a loss of objectivity. In our business of the Church, we call it evangelization, transformation and conversion. They simply wanted to touch what they had heard and seen with their own eyes. And they did.
The memories and souvenirs of WYD 2002 are leaving us - taking up their rightful past in the annals of memory and history. Those memories must die just as the grain of wheat must die in order to bear fruit. What remains is the extraordinary encounter between Jesus and his young friends - between the young pilgrims and that beloved old man in white who journeyed from the banks of the Tiber to the shores of Lake Ontario for a meeting - an encounter - a kairos moment that summer. We are slowly beginning to understand the jumbled emotions which ebb and flow from that time and those places and why, when they have vanished, we shall value the whole World Youth Day experience so intensely and cherish the shadows of lightness 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.
During the Angelus prayer at Downsview Lands on Sunday, July 28, 2002, the Holy Father 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.”
Could we desire anything more than these thoughts and words as our own Magnificat hymn of praise, thanksgiving, and promise of action ten years later?
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation