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World Youth Day ’97
Pilgrimage to Paris

[Feature 1 Photo]

Sean McDonnel of Troy, Michigan, holds up a cross while waiting for the pope to arrive.

CNS Photos by Nancy Wiechec


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(Above) Pope John Paul II baptizes 10 World Youth Day participants, including Megan Costello, during a vigil Mass at Longchamp racetrack on August 23.

Millions of young people gathered in Paris this past August to celebrate World Youth Day. To them it was not a vacation, but a pilgrimage of faith. By Jerry Daoust


 A Celebration of Faith

 Not All Fun and Games


Bringing the Pope to Paris

Putting the Message Into Action

FFIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD MEGAN COSTELLO held her breath as Pope John Paul II, holding a seashell-like ladle of water, approached her.

She’d been preparing for this moment for two years—ever since joining St. James Catholic Church in Ogden, Utah. For years before that, she’d been visiting churches of various denominations around her home, looking for one that felt right. The Catholic Church had felt like the place she belonged, and now, with nearly a million young people from around the world looking on, she was about to be baptized into it.

She hadn’t fainted when the pope greeted her at the beginning of the ceremony, as her friends predicted she might. Instead of being nervous, she had spent much of the ceremony deep in thought.

“I was trying to decide exactly what the whole thing meant to me,” she said later. “I still wasn’t really sure, so I was going over it in my head.”

But there wasn’t much time for personal reflection on the mystery of Baptism; before she knew it, the pope was pouring a large measure of cool water over her head, drenching her as he said, “Je te baptise au nom du Père, et du Fils et du Saint-Esprit.” And then she breathed again, taking a huge gulp of air as the crowd cheered.

“God acknowledges you as his children and transforms your existence into a story of love with him,” the pope said. “Live from now on as children of the light who know they are reconciled by the cross of the savior.”

Then Megan, and the nine others who had been baptized with her, took their baptismal candles and lit the candles of the assembled cardinals, who in turn passed the flame on to others. Spotlights fixed their beams in a crisscross pattern overhead, making a sort of cathedral of light.

“The light spread out into the audience, so everybody had candles, and it was so pretty,” Megan said. “It was a sea of candles. It was beautiful, so moving.”

After the catechumens received the Sacrament of Confirmation, the ceremony ended in a jubilant riot of waving flags, banners and white sashes as the crowd sang, in one voice over and over, “Magnificat, magnificat, magnificat anima mea Dominum!” (“My soul magnifies, magnifies, magnifies the Lord”).

Days after returning to her home in Utah, Megan was still full of questions about what the Baptism would mean to her life. But she was certain of one thing: “I felt different after [the Baptism],” she said. “I can’t explain what I mean by that, but I felt different. Happy. It will change my life, a little bit.”

A Celebration of Faith

Megan was not alone in her experience of searching and questioning at World Youth Day XII in Paris August 18-24 of this year. The World Youth Day theme, taken from John 1:38-39, was chosen to reflect the pilgrims’ search for meaning: “They said to [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come, and you will see.’”

The hundreds of thousands of young Catholics gathered at World Youth Day from some 150 countries around the world responded to the invitation to “come and see” by exploring their faith through prayer, catechesis, the sacraments and fellowship with each other. Like Megan, many found the pilgrimage left them touched and transformed.

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Photo by Steve Kerekes

The boy standing by the pope presented and then released a dove of peace during the greeting of the pope at Champ de Mars. The bird flew to the cross and stayed there.


World Youth Day has occurred annually since Pope John Paul II instituted it in 1985. World Youth Days are celebrated each year in every diocese, but every two years the celebration becomes a large international gathering of “youth” under the age of 35.

Many Americans remember the celebration in Denver in 1993. But unlike Denver, where the Americans were in the majority, in Paris the 13,000 Americans found themselves surrounded by a clatter of foreign languages and a flurry of colorful flags.

It’s impossible to bring together so many young Catholics without unleashing a storm of a festival. Everywhere they went in Paris and its suburbs, the World Youth Day pilgrims raised a rainbow of color and a song of joy. They laughed, chanted, waved flags and banners, and sang—and sang and sang, in any place, for any reason, in every language and style.

There were Hungarians singing and playing flutes and pipes on the tram, German Girl Scouts singing hymns in three parts on the Champs Elysées, Lebanese and Egyptians dancing to exotic Arabian instruments near the Paris Exposition Center. In the plaza outside the Louvre, Spaniards sang and danced in a huge circle in front of the museum’s giant glass pyramid, as pigeons flew overhead. Pilgrims crowded the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, clapping their hands over their heads and swaying and jumping to the music of a Jamaican priest and a Franciscan brother. “Say Amen!” the priest would call out, and the crowd would respond, “Amen!”...“Say O.K.!” ...“O.K.!”...“Say O.K.-amen!”...“Say Amen-O.K.-amen, amen, amen...!”

The Metro stations, in which World Youth Day pilgrims easily outnumbered the workday commuters, echoed with song as well. “I came to work one morning listening to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ being sung in my Metro carriage,” one woman told La Croix, a French Catholic newspaper.

It amazed Edward Sebastian, too. He takes tickets from tourists about to ascend the Eiffel Tower. On this particular night, it was midnight, and young Africans sang in call-and-response fashion as they pounded on hand drums in the plaza under the tower, which was lit up golden against the blackness.

“They never stop. They never stop. They’re always singing,” he said. Presumably he normally stands still to do his work, but on this night he was smiling broadly and doing a little dance to the music as he worked. “It’s beautiful to be here and to live this moment with other people, with people we don’t know but we can make friends with,” Sebastian said.

Indeed, so much public song and prayer seemed to have something of an intoxicating effect. The norms that usually govern conduct among strangers in public places were temporarily suspended, as in times of shared crisis such as earthquakes or floods. That atmosphere allowed people—pilgrims and Parisians alike—to make friends with whomever happened to be handy, striking up conversations with each other on the Metro and exchanging holy medals, e-mail addresses and T-shirts. Bus drivers were cheered, and they waved sheepishly in response. Some Americans even adopted the European custom of kissing cheeks during the sign of peace at Mass. “Paris smiled,” read the headlines in several French newspapers and magazines, as if this were a rare event.

In the evenings, pilgrims attended dozens of “Youth Festival” sites around the city hosting events and activities planned by the youth—ranging from a huge mural on which they penned messages of peace to the world, to dances, computer activities and fasts for world hunger.

Not All Fun and Games

But the gathering wasn’t all festival; there were quieter interludes as well. One evening, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims participated in processions of the Way of the Cross at 19 different sites throughout the city, including on a barge on the Seine River. In one procession, 5,000 pilgrims followed a huge cross and six torches for three hours, winding through commercial districts, down residential streets and around the Eiffel Tower. At each station, they sang, prayed and meditated on Christ’s passion. They walked in silence, except for the shuffling of their feet on the cobblestones, as little children in pajamas watched from windows and shopkeepers looked out their doors.

Those quiet moments were a reminder that this trip to Paris was not just about seeing the Mona Lisa or the Arc de Triomphe, but something more.

“We are not here on vacation, but on pilgrimage, to come and see where God lives, and to know that he loves us,” said Father Ramon Marrufo, speaking to pilgrims from San Diego.

The invitation to “come and see” where God lives was most explicit at the catechesis sessions, during which either a cardinal or a bishop taught the young people based on that day’s Gospel reading.



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(Top) Robia Miller (left) and Latoya Evans, both of Detroit, join hands and sing to celebrate the beginning of World Youth Day. (Bottom) Parisians were treated to almost constant music from many World Youth Day participants like these near the Tuileries.


Photo (top) by Nancy Wiechec, Photo (bottom) Jerry Daoust






Some of the young people drowsed, braided each others’ hair or talked during the catechesis sessions. On the other hand, Cardinal Christian Tumi of Cameroon, while preaching on the bread passages from the Gospel of John, was interrupted three times by vigorous applause, and received a standing ovation when he was finished.

“I liked him because he told the truth very straightforward. He told it like it was, but in such a loving way,” said Anne Kerekes, a 17-year-old from Perham, Minnesota. “It got me thinking about different things, about my relationship with God and the Church, and it kind of made me curious to find out more about my belief.”

Then there was an opportunity to ask questions, and the youth didn’t hesitate to ask difficult ones. Among the questions Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston fielded were: How do we keep on the path of faith when others are trying to pull us away? How do we evangelize youth who have fallen away from the Church? How do we pray? What is the role of women in the Church?

“I’m experiencing a great deal of interest and enthusiasm on the part of the young people here, and the desire to take this experience and live it,” Cardinal Law said afterward. “I’m convinced that one of the most powerful ways to reach young people is through young people. We need to encourage those who are committed [to faith] to be apostles and disciples.”

The catechesis sparked more spontaneous faith discussions as well. Some of the high school students from Sierra Madre Academy in San Diego, for instance, talked about the deeper meaning of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well as they ate a lunch of baguettes and yogurt.

And at the International Youth Forum, 350 delegates debated how youth view the Church, what role they play in it and how the Church can better evangelize its youth. From those talks they formulated a statement that they read to the rest of the gathered youth and presented to the pope.

“It was really neat to have a diverse perspective [on the Church],” said Michael Zimmerman, a 23-year-old from Lawrence, Kansas, and one of two U.S. delegates to the Forum. “I got to know a delegate from the Ivory Coast really well, and I was telling him about some of the problems the Church confronts in the United States. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, we don’t have that problem. Our biggest problem is 40 percent unemployment and illiteracy.’”

The World Youth Day pilgrims were urged again and again to celebrate their diversity and the Church that ultimately unifies them. During the opening Mass, young people wearing different color T-shirts representing the five continents danced together as thousands of priests wearing rainbow-colored stoles processed to the stage.

“I’m starting to love the Church more, because I’m seeing a lot of its different aspects, and all the different people from all over the world,” said Nicholas Sheehy, a 16-year-old from San Diego. “It gives me a better sense of the world community of the Church, and of its universality.

“Sometimes we have problems in our Church... but then we come here and see that we’re all Catholics, and we can all get along.”

Bringing the Pope to Paris

Later in the week, renowned gospel singer Dee Dee Bridgewater sang, “O, Happy Day!” as Pope John Paul II rode through the crowd of more than 500,000 pilgrims waving flags, banners and white sashes at him in greeting. For many of the young Catholics, seeing and hearing the pope was a high point of the pilgrimage, and it showed in their response to him.

“It kind of gave me a spiritual renewal to see the pope,” said 15-year-old Marissa Mountcastle of Orange, California. “You hear all this stuff about how ‘big’ the pope is, but when you actually see him, you get to feel it.”

And the pope, in turn, seemed to draw just as much inspiration from the young people. “Some people have said the pope has gathered all the young people of the world to Paris,” he told them. “It is not so. You have brought the pope to Paris.”

Throughout the gathering, he challenged young people to “be witnesses to the gospel” and to “be active and responsible members of the Church.”

He sought to teach by example, as well. He visited Trocadero Square, dedicated to human rights, and recited a prayer for the world’s suffering, including the “millions of young people who have no reason to believe or even exist, vainly looking for a future in this senseless world.” Later, he apologized for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which Catholics killed thousands of Protestants in the streets of Paris in August of 1572.

And he offered two models for the pilgrims to emulate. He beatified Frederick Ozanam, who founded the charitable St. Vincent de Paul Society at the age of 20, and later became a professor of law and a leading intellectual before dying at the age of 40.

He also announced that he would make St. Thérèse of Lisieux a doctor of the Church. St. Thérèse wrote about her “little way” before she died at the age of 24. It was that teaching that ultimately earned her the title of doctor.

Young people who want to be “authentic Christians” must “follow the same road” that Ozanam traveled when he and his friends sought to serve the poor, the pope said. And St. Thérèse, “a holy young woman so relevant to our times, is of particular interest to you, young people,” he said. “She calls you to an infinite generosity.”

The pope’s instinct to provide young Catholics with models in their faithful peers—both in the saints and in the World Youth Day participants themselves—was exactly what many of the pilgrims said they needed.

Putting the Message Into Action

Young people from Western countries, especially, repeatedly spoke of feeling isolated in a largely secular culture. The sentiment of Sarah Gisla, a 24-year-old from San Diego, was common: “Sometimes you may feel like you’re all alone, and you try to live out your faith as best you can,” she said. “And when you see all these people here who are also trying to live out their faith, it’s very encouraging and very inspiring. There’s a real sense of camaraderie.”

For Emily Toffler, a 20-year-old from Portland, Oregon, World Youth Day opened the door to a Church full of young people, and led her to start a youth group at Holy Rosary Parish.

“[World Youth Day in] Denver in ’93 was a life-changing experience for me,” she said. “It was powerful; it increased my spirituality when I came home. I didn’t realize how many young people shared my joy for Christ. I guess I’ve always believed what I believe, but it always helps to know that there are other people who support me.”

The young people of France have an especially tough time living their faith because of the strong tradition of anticlericalism that has its roots in the French Revolution, and persists even today. Mass attendance by all Catholics is low—less than 15 percent, by some accounts—and even lower among the young, although Catholic youth associations have begun to spring up in recent years.

Derassim Quitterie, a 22-year-old woman from Paris, said it can be difficult to be Catholic in such an environment: “My friends think it is strange. I try to explain to them, but they don’t really understand what I want to say, and I am alone to say it, so it is difficult.”

She remains in the Church, in spite of those difficulties, partly because of her first World Youth Day experience in Poland in 1991.

“I went to Czestochowa six years ago,” she said. “I was 16, and I was in a period where I didn’t go to church every Sunday. After World Youth Day, I began to go to church every Sunday and become very spiritual. It was a turning point in my life.”

Michael Zimmerman, an International Youth Forum delegate from Kansas, said he felt like “a changed person” as a result of his World Youth Day experience as well. But he and the other delegates hope the change won’t end with themselves. In their final message, the delegates urged Catholic youth to “change the world” and the Church through prayer, faith and actions that would serve as “signs of peace.”

“We simply want a renewed Church, a Church which embodies the kingdom of God, in which everyone participates,” Zimmerman said. “We want a Church which has the ability to change the world for the better by the sheer number of people involved in it and the strength of their faith and their commitment and enthusiasm, just as we saw at World Youth Day.”

The pilgrims dramatized that message one morning by encircling Paris in a “chain of brotherhood” 22.5 miles long and as many as six people deep. The participants, wearing T-shirts decorated with signs of peace, faced outward, “toward our countries in the five continents where we will return, sent back to build up, wherever we may be, the civilization of love.” For one minute, they joined hands and were silent. And then all the church bells of Paris rang, and “Ode to Joy” blared over portable radios as the pilgrims returned to their singing, cheering and flag-waving. Japanese tourists passing by on buses waved and took pictures of the spectacle.

“Dear young people, your journey does not end here,” the pope told the more than 1,000,000 people gathered for the closing Mass. “Go forth now along the roads of the world...help our brothers and sisters to see the world transfigured by God’s eternal wisdom and love.”

If they truly respond to that call, the light whose beauty so awed Megan Costello as it spread among the people at Longchamp will not stop there, but will be carried with the pilgrims out into the world.

“We need to share our experience,” Emily Toffler said. “We should not hide our light under a basket, but spread it forth, to bring everyone as close as we can to holiness, to support one another and, in a sense, realize the Body of Christ.”


Jerry Daoust is a free-lance author from Winona, Minnesota. His work has been published in a number of publications, including U.S. Catholic, Catholic Twin Circle and St. Anthony Messenger. His fiction piece “Apple Tree Angels” appeared in St. Anthony Messenger in August 1996 and won second place in the 1997 Catholic Press Association awards competition.

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