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The Triumph of Jesus’ Cross in Canada

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

September 13, 2013
JPII Cross cropped
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 not a few journalists have called the "Olympic Torch" of the huge Catholic Festival that we were blessed to have in Canada in July 2002. 
In 1984, at the close of the 1983 Holy Year of the Redemption at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II entrusted to the young people of the world a simple, twelve-foot wooden Cross, asking them to carry it across the world as a sign of the love which the Lord Jesus has for humankind and "to proclaim to everyone that only in Christ who died and is risen is there salvation and redemption."  Since that day, carried by generous hands and loving hearts, the Cross has made a long, uninterrupted pilgrimage across the continents, to demonstrate, as Pope John Paul II had said, "the Cross walks with young people and young people walk with the Cross."
The memories of the World Youth Day 2002 Cross Pilgrimage throughout Canada continue to stir many hearts and evoke wonderful memories twelve years after the great pilgrimage began in our land on April 11, 2001.  The WYD Cross literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It visited our 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.  The Knights of Columbus in Canada helped to coordinate the entire 43,000 kilometer journey of the cross, assuring its transportation, accessibility, and the safety of the crowds that came out to touch the wood of the cross.
Such expressions of popular piety had been absent for far too many years from the Canadian ecclesial landscape.  It was not a coincidence that the pilgrimage of the Cross was preceded by the extraordary visit to Canada of the Relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux several months prior.  Thérèse prepared Canadians to welcome the Cross.
WYD CrossIn the midst of the carefully orchestrated pilgrimage throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the Cross took a detour in February, 2002 that was not normally part of the Youth Day Preparations in previous host countries.  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 the next 48 hours. 
After a Sunday evening mass in Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral with the late Canadian Bishop Anthony Meagher and an early morning mass with then Archbishop Renato Martino, the Vatican's permanent observer at the United Nations, (now Cardinal) we carried the cross to Ground Zero, into the "pit", to pray for the victims of the September 11, 2001 tragedies at the World Trade Centre and elsewhere throughout the United States.  The visit, which received international media coverage, was a sign of hope, consolation, solidarity and peace to the peoples of America, and the entire world, who struggled to understand the evil, terror, violence and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on September 11, 2001.  We had requested special permission of the Vatican to undertake this pilgrimage with the Pope's Cross, and the Holy Father, himself, was aware of what we were doing. I remember vividly sharing with Pope John Paul II the details of the journey several weeks later at the Vatican.
The journey into Ground Zero was for us a very public act of defiance and courage.  Six young people from the World Youth Day 2002 National Team carried the large cross up to the special platform built for the families of victims of the World Trade Centre tragedy.  While they processed with the cross, the rest of us sang the Taizé refrain: "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom."   As the cross was placed in its metal stand at the edge of the huge crater where the twin towers once stood, the singing grew louder.  It was 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.  The significance of the action was lost on no one.
Earlier that morning at mass in the Church of the Savior near the United Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, told us in his moving homily:  "The Sacred Scriptures speak to us about sin, and the desperate need we all have for conversion.  What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: a crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it.
Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it.  We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes.  In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious and cultural factors emerge.  The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region.  It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates."
The Cross of Jesus Christ blessed and marked World Youth Day 2002 in an extraordinary fashion.  Each catechetical site was graced by a replica of the World Youth Day Cross.  It was present at each of the main ceremonies. It led our processions, called us to prayer and reflection, healed us, reconciled us and touched our hearts.  Its memory lingers among us several years later. 
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 Toronto's majestic University Avenue, passing before its court houses, American Consulate, Government Buildings, hospitals, university, Provincial Parliament, and museums?  A principal street of a great city was transformed into a contemporary Via Dolorosa, while over a billion people watched the scenes of this modern-day passion play unfold via satellite and television.
On Saturday evening July 27, 2002, during the Great Vigil of World Youth Day 2002 at a former military base that is now Toronto's Downsview Park, Pope John Paul II begin his address to over 600,000 young people with these words:  
"The new millennium opened with two contrasting scenarios: one, the sight of multitudes of pilgrims coming to Rome during the Great Jubilee to pass through the Holy Door which is Christ, our Savior and Redeemer; and the other, the terrible terrorist attack on New York, an image that is a sort of icon of a world in which hostility and hatred seem to prevail.  The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century?"
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 Barrios Egipto and Blaquizal, two of the poorest barrios of Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia. We could have chosen many places to have these crosses made--but World Youth Day 2002 chose to have the crosses made in a land that has had its share of the cross over the past years. 
CrucifixBecause we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world's suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering. The cross teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope and a continuous call to heroic goodness.
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."
The feast of the Triumph or the Exaltation of the Cross originated in the tradition that Emperor Constantine's mother, Helena, discovered the Cross on which Jesus died on September 14, 320 A.D. in Jerusalem. From very early on,  the triumph attributed to the Cross functioned more within the "normal" understanding of triumph: namely, a victory won over another, achieved by violence of some sort.  But is it not rather outrageous to speak of a cross as triumphant? The crucifixion of Jesus is the great, divine paradox. The cross, an instrument of death, is transformed into our life-giving tree. Through the mystery of the cross, Jesus crucified becomes our life and our light in the midst of the darkness.
When all the commotion and frenzied activity of World Youth Day was over, I was convinced that one of the lasting memories that will remain in our country will be that simple, wooden Cross that was a huge blessing and a 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. 
To celebrate the triumph of the Cross is to acknowledge the full, cruciform achievement of Jesus' career. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life similar to his own.  Suffering cannot be avoided nor ignored by those who follow Jesus. Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross.  The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples.