A panoply of sound and color filled the streets of Toronto
during World Youth Day last July. A constant flow of pilgrims passed with striking
beauty and pageantry, as flags and banners waved. Many sang traditional songs,
with guitar or conga drums to accompany them.
The streets echoed with singing,
in French, English, Spanish, Italian and Polish, and other languages I didn’t
recognize. Members of our group (one of four from Cincinnati, Ohio) brought
out a guitar and contributed to the hubbub with contemporary Christian music.
Upon seeing the Stars and Stripes flutter past, our band of pilgrims yelled,
We hollered, “Where ya from?”
to crowds of bright shirts and flags. They yelled back, “Jamaica, mon!” or “Italia”
or “Dallas.” (Apparently, Texas is an independent country!) Whatever their reply,
it was met by enthusiastic cheers. We were not only glad they were from Jamaica,
Italy or Texas, but also glad they were here.
The parade of nations went past
with so much noise and display that it looked as if the circus had collided
with the Olympics. And that was only the line for lunch.
This World Youth Day had the
theme: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” From
July 23 through 28, over 375,000 pilgrims from 170 countries filled the grounds
of Exhibition Place, where concerts and the opening Mass took place. It also
held a hall full of displays and booths. Attendance swelled to 800,000 for the
closing papal Mass held at Downsview Lands, a huge park north of Toronto, which
was open to the public. Some drove 10 hours to attend that single event.
A Family Reunion
As members of the Catholic Church, we are a family whose spiritual
father is the pope. The pilgrims at World Youth Day came to see their Holy Father.
In introductions, place names were thrown around like surnames, identifying
their branch of the worldwide family tree. “‘Catholic’ has always meant ‘universal,’
but for me it now means ‘family,’” said William Egan, from Cincinnati. “I have
found my true home, my true family, in the Church.”
Pope John Paul II understands
the need for family in the Body of Christ. He lost his biological family at
a young age, and grew up recognizing the brotherhood and sisterhood in the People
of God. This sense of family, however, does not imply a cookie-cutter similarity.
World Youth Day was not a melting
pot for people to forget where they came from and assimilate into the title
“Catholic.” Instead, each country bore its own flag proudly, but without arrogance
or bitterness toward flags of other nations.
Joe Monaghan and Kim Reis, a
married couple who hosted two pilgrims in Toronto, were one of many families
who opened their doors to strangers, extending to us the hospitality of Canadian
culture. They offered us a family to come home to, a bed to sleep in and breakfast
in the morning, as well as rides to and from the parish hall where our bus met
us each morning. Other groups slept on gym floors or parish halls, and a few
others booked hotel rooms. It was a blessing to experience World Youth Day as
a pilgrim people, staying in a local home with other Catholics, experiencing
an exchange of culture.
Joe took a particular pride in his
Scottish homeland, saying: “If Canada is the second-largest country in the world,
Scotland, by far, is the largest!” Pilgrims from the island nation of Grenada
waved their green, yellow and red flag exuberantly, and the Belgians were happy
to be from Belgium.
There was camaraderie between
countries. The only thing better than hearing chants of “U-S-A” from other Americans
was hearing chants of
“CA-NA-DA” by other Americans and “U-S-A” by the Canadians! “You see youth from
around the world coming together and it’s something to bring back to your Church
and make you stronger,” said a young man from Chicago.
Afghans, Chileans, Nigerians
and Danes all call one man “Papa”: the pope. And because he is my Holy Father
also, I am a member of their family. Thus there was nothing strange about a
group of my Irish brothers whirling me around to a fast-paced rendition of their
traditional song “Fields of Athenry,” or dancing a slow step with my Brazilian
sisters singing “Gloria.” We’re family, even if we just met.
Strengthened by Teaching
There were spontaneous concerts on sidewalk corners, and formal bands
on the main stage in Exhibition
Place. Artists with styles ranging from that of Father Stan Fortuna, a rapping
Franciscan from the streets of New York, to John Michael Talbot, a meditative
Franciscan from an Arkansas
hermitage, entertained audiences. This main stage
held groups from Australia, India and Peru, and many others played in 31 locations
But this giant, international
family came to Toronto for more than seeing the pope and singing in the streets.
“We came to learn about our faith,” said a pilgrim from Brazil, one of 1,600
who came from the country with the largest Catholic population.
Catechesis is a major part of the World Youth Day events. We were
challenged in formal sessions taught by approximately 500 bishops and cardinals
from around the world. The speakers focused on being salt of the earth, light
of the world and reconciled to God.
Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe of
the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, spoke to those gathered at St. Anthony
of Padua catechetical site, giving practical advice on how we could be salt
of the earth.
He encouraged the 800 gathered
there to do small things with love, in the spirit of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
“Salt has the powerful gift to preserve and add flavor. Jesus invites us...to
give a special flavor to the world; to transform it from the inside out. We
do this by God’s love....It is love that preserves us. It is love that flavors
our lives and flavors the world.”
In a spirit of practicality,
he voiced the question on everyone’s mind, “How can I be salt when I go home?”
One suggestion offered was: “By staying connected to Jesus in prayer.” Indeed,
the pope affirmed this when he said at the Saturday vigil, “Prayer will be the
salt that gives flavor to your lives and leads you to [Jesus], humanity’s true
Bishop Plouffe preached a gospel
of little deeds, able to be lived out in daily life: Give thanks for your own
gifts. Stay connected to the Church. Be kind to your family, especially your
brothers and sisters.
On this theme of love, at the
catechesis about reconciliation, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, of Washington,
D.C., said, “The love you show to the person you love the least is how much
you love Christ.” This is simple advice, but very challenging. It convinced
me of how much I still need to learn to love.
There were many opportunities
for reconciliation throughout the week. Three hundred priests at a time heard
confessions at Duc in Altum Park on the shore of Lake Ontario. Priests traveling
with various pilgrim groups offered to hear confessions during the catechetical
sessions. Reconciliation sites were also set up before the Saturday night vigil
began. If a pilgrim still couldn’t find a chance to slip away, there were priests
at almost every corner. One held a Styrofoam placard reading “Confessions here.”
It was easy to find one and ask, “Father, do you have time to hear my confession?”
The Discipline of Holiness
In a Church racked by scandal, and to a world cynical toward the
beauty of chastity, the pope called the youth to a higher standard at Thursday’s
welcoming ceremony. The world proposes a “joy that comes with the superficial
and fleeting pleasures of the senses,” but Pope John Paul II invited all people
to discover a true joy that has “walking with Christ” as its source. It is a
joy found “in obedience to the Father and in gift of self to others.”
Kyle Johnson, from Wisconsin,
remarked: “Being joyful during our daily struggle to grow closer to Christ is
witness enough to make us salt and light for the world. The pope asked us to
use our talents for the Kingdom of Christ and not to be afraid in adversity.
All the youth of the world know the struggles facing the Church at this time,
but our love for John Paul II and the Church easily surpasses any crisis.”
The pope knows of the power of
love and self-gift to light the lives of young people. “If your friendship with
Christ, your knowledge of his mystery, your giving of yourselves to him, are
genuine and deep, you will be ‘children of the light,’” he said at Saturday’s
all-night vigil. He sees in us the hope for the Church in the 21st century.
He commits to this generation the task of “working with [God] in the building
of the civilization of love.”
The young people accepted his
challenge to reject “the lure of sin, however attractive it may be, in order
to set out on the difficult path of the gospel virtues.” The world often prods
us to find the easy way out.
Dave Willig, a chaperone of our Cincinnati group,
commented: “You only discipline those you love. If you don’t love them, you
don’t discipline them.” If this is so, then the pope loves us, for he offers
a challenge, the discipline of holiness.
To Emily Snyder, from Massachusetts,
being holy salt and light meant “We must be saints—and not just saints when
no one’s around. We have to be saints even to the folks who drive us bonkers,
saints when we’re in utter pain. Look to the Holy Father—he is just such
salt and light.”
The Challenge to Young Catholics
Emily also shared some of the challenges of growing up Catholic:
“One thing to remember when being salt and light is that others...try to trample
you underfoot or blow you out; even folks within the Church. This is the hardest
to stand up to, not folks from without, but ‘fellows’ from within....But that
doesn’t obviate us from kindly, but firmly, remaining loyal to the Church, to
loving God and his people so much that you try to lead them back to him. And
I pray that others do the same for me.”
Michelle Moravitz, from Minnesota,
voiced some of the same concerns: “When people don’t understand the faith, they
assume things that are false.” Then she added a word of responsibility for our
generation: “We need to stand up for our faith.”
On the bus ride home to Cincinnati,
Lauren Bort encouraged us to take that stand: “Everyone I work with knows I’m
Catholic, and they look to me to be an example of what the faith is. And I challenge
you, as I challenge myself, to be that witness.”
Pope John Paul II’s words from
his first homily as pope continue to ring out: “Be not afraid!” Opening the
doors of our lives to Christ, as he urged that day in 1978, remains a challenge.
It is in the small acts of encouragement
and daily witness that the youth answer the Holy Father’s call: “Let the light
of Christ shine in your lives! Do not wait until you are older in order to set
out on the path of holiness!”
He uttered these words at the
welcoming ceremony on Thursday with a sense of urgency: “Christ needs you to
carry out his plan of salvation!” Unstated, but implied, was that the pope also
needs us. The young Church he visited in Toronto is the Church of the future,
and even the Church of today. The young people he forms through his word and
example are the hands guiding the Church through the present century. He wants
to form these pilgrims into strong and loving guardians of the deposit of faith.
When Pope John Paul II mentioned
on Sunday, “You are young, and the pope is old, and a bit tired. Eighty-two
is not the same as being 22 or 23,” his audience immediately responded with
chants of “The pope is young! The pope is young!” Yet he knows this may be the
last World Youth Day he will attend. The next one will be celebrated in Cologne,
Germany, in 2005. If he can’t be present in person, he will be with us in spirit.
The pope is preparing young people to accept responsibility as leaders of the
Racing to the Cross
He left us with a picture of a father willing to sacrifice for his
family. At a time when much of America’s baby-boom generation is looking forward
to retirement, he is still unrelenting in spreading the gospel. At his arrival
in Toronto, he walked down the steps of the papal airplane to the tarmac, slowly,
painfully, deliberately. It might have been the slowest descent in the history
of air travel, but he did it.
As a young pilgrim, I saw him
taking the steps to show a willingness and determination to keep going. He embodied
the virtue of perseverance in fulfilling his vocation. He encouraged me by his
example. If an elderly pope can still walk down the narrow, steep airplane stairs,
perhaps I can find the same grit, determination and grace to walk the straight
and narrow path that gospel values require.
He was stronger and more energetic-looking
than he has been in many months, standing for a time, waving and looking the
crowd in the eyes. But he can’t run as he once did. Now he asks us youth to
be the hands, the smile, the feet, the face of Christ in the world. He asks
us to race toward Jesus in the shadow of the Jubilee cross.
In this spirit, youth participated in a five-mile walking pilgrimage to Downsview
Lands, a 644-acre park in Toronto where the all-night vigil and
papal Mass were held on Saturday and Sunday. We packed everything
we needed for the next two days in knapsacks, flung sleeping bags
over our shoulders and went off with light hearts. Not surprisingly,
many were singing.
The group from Anchorage, Alaska,
took literally this charge to run to Christ. They started their pilgrimage in
the early morning hours, before the sun turned them into Baked Alaskans. Not
wanting simply to walk toward the giant cross and the papal altar at Downsview,
they ran the designated route, passing off their handmade state flag when one
“I carried it to the park, and
then gave it to John,” said Kalesha Henry, from Anchorage. “He tossed me his
book bag, took the flag and was off, sprinting. When the rest of us reached
the park, we saw our flag, waving in the front.” The 89 pilgrims were rewarded
for their efforts. They sat front and center for the vigil and papal Mass.
They ran toward the pilgrimage
site. If he could, the pope would be running alongside them, calling them to
the cross and to the altar, to holiness. In the spiritual sense, however, he
is running not alongside us but ahead of us. We are having trouble keeping up
with him. This slow-moving man in white is racing us to the Cross, racing up
Calvary, racing us to heaven, and he invites us to follow.
On a rainy July Sunday, 800,000 pilgrims responded to this invitation by their
presence at Mass. The Holy Father calls, and we come. He leads,
and we follow. The challenge of World Youth Day is not only for
young people but also for all Catholics: Be salt of the earth. Be
light of the world.
Maria Kemper is a junior at Franciscan University
of Steubenville, Ohio, majoring in theology and literature. She
was an editorial intern during summer 2002 for this publication.
This was her first World Youth Day.