By Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, National Director of WYD 2002
This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of the beginning of World Youth Day 2002 activities here in Toronto.
Today I would like to look back at one aspect of World Youth Day 2002 that touched so many people across Canada during the 14 months prior to the event.
At the heart of every World Youth Day is a very simple, powerful, ancient Christian symbol: Two large planks of wood, known as the World Youth Day Cross, that a few journalists have called the "Olympic Torch" of the huge Catholic Festival that we were blessed to have in Canada.
The World Youth Day 2002 Cross Pilgrimage throughout Canada continues to stir many hearts and evoke wonderful memories five years after it began on April 11, 2001. The WYD Cross literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It visited cities, towns and rural areas, inviting throngs of people into the streets for processions, prayers, all-night vigils, tears, moments of reconciliation, healing and peace. How true were Pope John Paul II's words: "The cross walks with young people and young people walk with the cross."
In the midst of the carefully orchestrated pilgrimage which visited 72 dioceses, the cross took a detour in February, 2002. A convoy of buses left Toronto early on a cold Sunday morning, accompanied by representatives of Canadian police, ambulance and fire fighters, and set out with the WYD Cross in tow to New York City for 48 hours.
We had the privilege of carrying the cross to Ground Zero, into the "pit," to pray for the victims of the 9/11 tragedies at the World Trade Center and elsewhere throughout the United States. We did so in the name of Pope John Paul II, who blessed and encouraged this special trip. The visit, which received international media coverage, was a sign of hope, consolation, solidarity and peace to the people of America, and the world, as we struggled to understand the evil, terror, violence and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced.
The journey to Ground Zero was for us a defiant act -- because there, in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror and death, we raised up a wooden cross -- an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol for Christians.
Who can ever forget the hauntingly beautiful images of the World Youth Day Cross leading over half a million people -- mostly on their knees -- in the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, July 26, 2002 -- up University Avenue? The CBC told us that one billion people viewed the modern passion play live by satellite in over 160 countries. Toronto was truly a world stage that night.
During the closing Eucharistic celebration on Sunday, July 28, 2002, the Holy Father presented to young pilgrims in the crowd of more than 850,000 people gathered with him small wooden crosses, hand made by young people living in the poorest and most dangerous areas of Colombia, South America.
At the end of the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy, the old Pope told his young friends not to be afraid "to follow Christ on the royal road of the cross! At difficult moments in the church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent." He invited his young friends to "learn from that cross."
I am convinced that one of the lasting memories of World Youth Day 2002 will be that simple, wooden cross -- such a huge blessing and source of consolation, healing, strength and peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who embraced it, touched it, kissed it, learned from it and allowed themselves to be touched by the awesome message and memory of the one who died upon it.