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Is there life after World Youth Days?

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

July 7, 2013
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After a country has hosted a World Youth Day, the church begins to take stock of the gifts and blessings received, and asks how the dynamism, vision, hope and joy of the preparatory period and the event itself have impacted pastoral ministry with young people in the given country.  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.  Certain questions must be asked.  What have the joy, exuberance, and creativity surrounding World Youth Days taught us, and how have they transformed youth and young adult ministry in the Church today?  How have we initiated a “preferential option” for young people in the church today?  I will attempt to answer these questions from our Canadian experience of World Youth Day 2002 through a series of nine reflection topics I have formulated over the past decade of “Life After World Youth Day.” 
1.      Pope John Paul’s biblical theme for WYD 2002 in Toronto (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).  Pope Benedict’s brilliant choice of "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses." (Acts 1:8) for the Sydney experience of World Youth Day 2008 allowed the young people of the world to encounter or perhaps rediscover the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives and in the life of the Church.
During World Youth Days, bishops and cardinals serve as teachers and catechists. Thousands of young people gather around them to hear reflections from the Word of God flowing from the biblical 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 last two Synods of Bishops in Rome in October 2008 and October 2012 that focused on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”  and “The New Evangelization.”  The catechetical teaching sessions on Scripture during World Youth Days 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.
How do we build on the biblical themes of World Youth Days, deepen them, and allow them to penetrate the heart of pastoral ministry with young people in our country?  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 trends 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, and 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?
3.      During WYD 2002 in Toronto, over 100,000 young people celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was the same in Syndey and Madrid.  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 very special moments to experience and deepen Christian piety and devotion. In Canada during 2001-2002, the historic, 43,000-km pilgrimage of the WYD Cross marked the entire nation.  People compared the cross to the Olympic Torch that precedes the Olympic Games in a given country.  We were convinced that if, for some reason, the World Youth Day event itself would have to be cancelled because of the tragic aftermath 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.
The Stations of the Cross in both Toronto and Sydney were a spectacle for the world and offered a provocative witness of the Christian faith in the heart of two modern cities.  How will we continue these traditions of bold, public piety and devotion in our parish communities and youth activities?  Will we go against the grain and acknowledge the need for solid, biblically rooted Christian piety and devotion in the lives of young people today?  Will we share those moments with the culture and society around us?
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:  “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  catechesis, Evangelization, and religious 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.  The security personnel informed us that 50-55,000 young people visited the pavilion each day for the week of World Youth Day 2002.  Sydney built on that tradition through an excellent Vocation Centre at World Youth Day 2008.  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.
The World Youth Day Vocation Harvest is underway throughout the world.  It is not an instantaneous process, as we well know.  Nevertheless seeds when are sown generously at each World Youth Day, there will be results in time… God’s time.  We must sow with patience, generosity, hope and love.  Others will water.  The Lord will reap the harvest. 
A whole new generation of young people 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.  How have our vocational strategies addressed these important questions flowing from the international experiences of World Youth Days?  How often do we raise vocational questions with young people who have returned from World Youth Days? 
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.  Young people today are discerning seekers.  Many of them are freed from the labeling of my generation and many of them simply desire to be Catholic.  Have we heard them?  Are we helping or hindering them in their quest?
8.      Pope John Paul II impressed upon the new generation the dignity and sacredness of human life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Life is an extraordinary adventure, a God-given gift to be cherished, treasured, and protected.  Is it any surprise that so many hundreds of thousands of young people consider themselves to be explicitly pro-life, while their parents are so non-commital to upholding the dignity and sacred of human life, from con conception to natural death, from womb to tomb?
9.      Pope John Paul II taught us that the adventure of orthodoxy, the beauty of marriage, the sacredness of family life, the challenge of fidelity and integrity, authenticity and solidarity — are what attracts young people today. Young people don't want to live on the surface. In a world that constantly panders to the young, a challenging Church, which combines the truth with charity and pastoral care, is a very attractive proposition. How many times did John Paul II speak to young people at various World Youth Days throughout the world, reminding them that the family is the privileged place for the humanization of the person and of society, and that the future of the world and of the Church passes through it?
Finally, in the words of Pope Francis as stated in his newly released encyclical letter “Lumen Fidei” (#53):
“We have all seen, during World Youth Days, the joy that young people show in their faith and their desire for an ever more solid and generous
life of faith. Young people want to live life to the fullest. Encountering Christ, letting themselves be caught up in and guided by his love, enlarges the horizons of existence, gives it a firm hope which will not disappoint. Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness.”
For further background information, please visit the following links from the special World Youth Day pages created by the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada:
WYD Central homepage                                                                                                   wydcentral.org