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World Youth Day 2002

By Maria Kemper

Over 800,000 youth were challenged by seeing Pope John Paul II during World Youth Day events in Toronto, Ontario. I was one of them.


A Family Reunion
Strengthened by Teaching
The Discipline of Holiness
The Challenge to Young Catholics
Racing to the Cross
The Rex Band

Dan and Gerard Baumbach

Photo by
Maria Kemper

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, “USA!”

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 around downtown.

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 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 light.”

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 Church.

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 got tired.

“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.


The Rex Band: A Snapshot of Indian Catholicism

Three small children sat awestruck as fog crept onto the small gymnasium stage at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish near Cincinnati, Ohio. They didn't sit still for long. They were up and dancing the minute The Rex Band launched into another energetic song praising God.

Using "the language of the youth," this enthusiastic band from Kerala, a state on India's southwest coast, fuses elements of Western and Indian music to spread the gospel.

The Rex Band is the musical outreach of "Jesus Youth," a Catholic charismatic movement popular in India, with chapters in the United States and around the world. They held this concert on July 10, one stop on a whirlwind tour of the States before performing on the main stage at World Youth Day.

Shelton Dinhero, a nine-year veteran of The Rex Band and one of its eight vocalists, points out the diversity of Rex members. Their group includes an engineer, a CEO and even an eighth-grade student. They also come from different Church rites: Syrian, Russian Orthodox, Latin. "It is like a cross section of Indian Catholicism," Dinhero says. The gospel, in fact, was preached in India 1,000 years before it came to America.

But where only 1.5 percent of the population is Catholic, being salt and light, the ideals of World Youth Day, is not easy. Dinhero nonchalantly mentioned threatening letters the band has received when playing in the northern part of the country, a bastion of Hinduism.

The Rex Band has not let Hindu extremists or rural settings hinder them. "We cannot compromise on quality," Dinhero says. But sometimes they have had to settle for less than the usual three-hour light-and-sound show.

At this concert they sang of God's love and the kingship of Christ. At the end of "Let Me Live," the song of an aborted baby, the audience's response was a deep silence. And to Rich Mullin's "Awesome God," they were on their feet, joining in a full-throated, rousing chorus.

World Youth Day 2002 showed the international face of Catholicism as other groups traveling to and from Toronto interacted with local Catholics throughout the United States and Canada.




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