Are World Youth Days a massive waste of the Church’s time and money? Are they nothing more than a big Catholic rock concert, pumping young adults up with excitement about the faith and then leaving them empty when they return home? Could the money not be better spent on the poor? Is this really the best use of Pope Francis’ time and energy? And the big one: Is it all for naught because young adults are simply abandoning the faith in droves anyway…can a week of prayer, catechesis and friendship really make a difference?
I say, yes, it can! The fruits from World Youth Day (WYD), which began in St. Peter’s Square in 1986, have only just begun to be realized. The steady rise in vocations to the priesthood and religious life during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI – which appears to be continuing under Francis – is but one sign of their importance. The countless numbers of young, Catholic married couples that met at WYD have dubbed it the ultimate Catholic matchmaking event on the planet. But WYD is about more than vocations. It is an example of this New Evangelization that the popes have spoken of so fondly over the past few years – an opportunity to reinvigorate the faith, which is ever ancient and ever new, to countries and cultures that were once deeply Catholic and have suffered a crisis of faith and practice.
Why should we continue supporting WYD? I can really only offer my own experience of how it changed my life forever. But I am also confident that my experience was not an isolated one, but one that others can attest to as well. When I stood beneath the Eiffel Tower in 1997, waiting to catch a glimpse of JPII drive by in the Popemobile, it was my first real experience of the Universal Church. Like most Catholics, our Catholic world is our parish – its activities, its Masses, its parishioners, etc. This is our home. We grow up here, we receive our sacraments here, and we learn what it means to be Catholic. Yet it is but a glimpse of the universal catholic family, which the Book of Revelation reminds us is made of “every tribe and tongue and kingdom and nation,” of every race, language, culture and demographic.
To stand in a crowd of 1 million plus Catholics, trading trinkets from our various countries, singing songs in multiple languages and then being united in one deafening cheer as Peter entered the crowd was, for me, life changing! Maybe only a few of my Catholic friends back home went to Church, but there were countless brothers and sisters in Christ surrounding me that day. And though I will never know most of them in this life, we are united as the Body of Christ! From that day on, my understanding of the Church radically changed – it became so much more than just my little parish back home (as important to me as that was). The Church is where I can be welcomed and feel at home the world over, perhaps in other languages, with slightly different ways of celebrating the Mass or different devotional practices, with various types of architecture, yet they are all a part of who I am as a Catholic!
WYD is also essential for our world as it makes the Pope real in your life. He is not just the political leader of our faith; he is really Peter, holding the keys Jesus gave to the Galilean fisherman. He is our Papa, our protector and our inspiration. This was burned into my soul in Madrid two years ago at the final vigil, in an ant-ridden dust bowl that had been organized as the place of the final WYD Mass. The pilgrimage to this spot was grueling in +40 heat, and most of the day seemed like a big party complete with fire trucks hosing down the heat-stroke inflicted crowd, dance music pumping through the speakers and people moving around trading hats, stories and having a great time. Then evening came and finally Benedict appeared. The cheer was deafening and there stood the shy German, awkwardly waving and smiling to the crowd.
Now many have said that the man had no flare for the sensational (except for those lovely red shoes I so dearly miss), but he did surprise us that night. Out on the stage suddenly appeared the famous monstrance of Toledo – nine feet tall and the most stunning throne of our Eucharistic Lord to ever have been crafted. The monstrance slowly rose up out of the stage to deafening cheers. Then with a gentle word, Benedict asked that we join him in prayer, that we spend a few minutes with him in silence to worship the Lord. At that, the crowd silenced, Peter placed our Lord in the monstrance and knelt in adoration. We all responded in turn, some kneeling, some sitting, some standing, in silence. There was but a soft hum in the air, some praying silently in groups, some singing softly, others staring at the large screens that were fixed on the Lord and on Peter praying for us all. I wanted to cry I was so moved. For 15 minutes, just silence and prayer, and then Peter got up and the monstrance descended back into the stage to deafening cheers and the party began once again! Only the Vicar of Christ, the bishop of Rome, the Servant of the servants of God could do that…draw us all in, not to glorify the Pope but to help us direct our gaze to Jesus and affirm that the Lord is true to His word, “Behold I am with you always, until the end of the world.”
And why else do we need WYDs? Whether you are physically able to be there or watch the events unfold from afar – now with all the convenience of twitter, Facebook and multiple Catholic TV stations – the message you walk away with can change you forever, if you allow it to. Pope Francis chose to retain the theme for this WYD that Benedict had declared prior to his abdication, that of “Go and make disciples of all nations.” In typical Francis fashion, he spent this past week putting this theme into action. Not only did he meet the youth, celebrate Mass with them and meet dignitaries and what not, he also went on pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to Our Mother Mary for whom he has shown in the past few months to have a very tender affection. He went to hospitals and even one of Rio’s roughest favelas where the poorest of the poor languish. Did his visit fix all their problems? No. But he certainly came to them to show that Christ, present among His people, compels each of us to go to those in need, not to be mere humanitarians and fix the world’s problems, but as an ambassador of Christ. To show that He is alive in His people – not some mere myth of the past. He works in and through His people if they just allow Him to move their hearts!
The Church is young, energetic and beautiful. Regardless of how young or old we may be, it will never perish and it is very alive in the world today. WYD makes the Church visible for two weeks every few years, but God forbid it stop there. No, it is supposed to be an injection of grace and zeal into all our lives. Yes, we are to get out there and make disciples. Lord, give us the courage to do so!
– Fr. Nathan Siray