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Pope John Paul II started World Youth Day for Roman Catholic youth in 1985 in Rome. Every other year there is a gathering with the pope for World Youth Day. There is no gathering in 2003, but 2003 World Youth Day is celebrated on October 26 in parishes with the theme, "Navigating the Waters."

Youth Update

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Special Edition

World Youth Day:
Navigating the Waters of Life

by Michael Theisen

I asked myself, "What could be the harm in tubing down a Virginia river in early summer?" Having 50 youth and adult chaperones tubing along probably had something to do with my anxiety, but it was to be a new adventure for our youth group. I just didn't realize how much of an adventure when we first arrived at the rafting company.

After being briefed on all the do's and don'ts by the river guides, we boarded a bus that took us five miles upstream to the drop-off point. The river we entered was smooth and quiet and it didn't take long before we had successfully tipped over one another's tubes. We floated along telling jokes, pointing out different animals we saw (or thought we saw), and we even had a picnic on an island midway through the trip.

The highlight of the day came at its end when we encountered the much-anticipated rapids. They turned out to be more than we had bargained for.

The story of how we successfully navigated the river can serve as an image of life's journey. As you read this Youth Update, think about your own journey down the river of your life.

Show Up

The first step each of us must take along the journey of life is to show up. It may sound easy, even simplistic, but some people hold off. —

Why? Because it means stepping outside our comfort zones, taking risks and sometimes setting ourselves apart from the crowd.

The young people who showed up for the tubing trip took a risk. Many had never gone river tubing before, some did not know anyone going and at least one didn't even know how to swim! There were no qualifications, only the commitment to want to jump in!

Jesus would often invite people to show up—to get involved and take a risk. While he invited everyone, most who decided to show up were the ones least expected.

The outcasts, women who held no status, sinners of all types, tax collectors and the blind and the lame often said yes to Jesus' invitation to "follow me" (Mark 2:14). Their yes during this moment of wonderment was the plunge that began their journey of transformation from curious onlookers into followers of Christ.

In life, you are constantly being given the chance to show up—or not. To be a disciple—or not.

A volunteer is needed to help tutor the refugee who arrived at the school. A fight breaks out at the lunch table across from you. A racial joke is told by a friend. You are asked to pass on some hot gossip. A friend has wronged you and you must choose between revenge or forgiveness. Your church is looking for someone to help teach religion to the third-graders.

How many times during a normal day do you have the opportunity to show up, to decide whether to lead or follow, to jump into the river or to stay safely on its banks? What have you chosen to get involved in lately that has made a difference in this world? Why did you decide to show up and jump in?

Get Instructions

When we arrived for our tubing adventure, we were met by the "experts." These people knew the river and could teach us how to have a fun and safe time during our journey. They told us where to stop to eat, how to approach the rapids and what to do if we fell out of the tubes while going over the rapids.

These experts knew the river because they had made the journey themselves many times, with countless others. Their advice turned out to be a gift to our entire group.

Many people came to Jesus to get instructions about life, because he walked where they walked and ate where they ate. He hung out with them and lived in their world and knew their joys, their hopes, their fears and their needs.

The respected rich young man who wanted to know what else he must do to inherit the kingdom (Matthew 19:16-30) and the despised tax collector Zacchaeus who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10) were both given the exact instructions each needed to be transformed.

To these, and to us, Jesus' instructions are profoundly simple: Love God and show that love to one's neighbor, don't be afraid, let go and trust in God's grace. And yet, it was the hated tax collector who ended up transformed while the wealthy young man went away sad, too overwhelmed by what was being asked of him.

Along the river of life, many experts will offer you instructions. Sometimes you listen and sometimes you turn away. Oftentimes, the wisdom that's passed along is based upon lessons experts (real and imagined) have learned from their own journey.

A parent misled by the wrong crowd as a teen will try to steer his or her own teen from taking a similar journey. A young person decides to become a teacher because she was helped by one while in high school.

Throughout our faith journey, experts walk with us and witness to how God is present and active. A priest helps a teen work through the sudden death of a friend. A retreat leader witnesses how God's unconditional love shown by another helped him to overcome his struggles. A catechist shares her understanding as to why Jesus had to die the way he did and what that means for us.

Think of the expert guides in your life and the wisdom they are offering you. What are the top three messages you have heard that help you navigate your journey along the river of life?

Pack a Lunch

Before the tubing trip began, we were instructed to pack a picnic lunch and drinks in a waterproof cooler that would be tied to one of the tubes. We were told to look for an island with a distinctive rock formation where we could enjoy our lunch midway through the trip. Around noon we rounded a bend in the river and a loud cheer went up as we saw the rock formation that marked our lunch stop.

Once we got everyone to shore, we placed our food upon the large rock that served as the common table. We blessed and shared it with all, everyone having plenty.

Ever notice how many of life's important moments revolve around food? Jesus certainly did. Whether it was turning water into wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11), feeding five thousand with a few fish and pieces of bread (Luke 9:10-17) or dining with the tax collector Zacchaeus and changing his life, Jesus knew the transforming power of a meal. No wonder he chose bread and wine to be remembered by during the last supper (Matthew 26:17-30). Jesus knew our common need to gather around a table for food and fellowship.

It's very likely that your most significant family memories and gatherings center around holiday meals, special birthday dinners or powerful discussions at the dinner table. These sacred moments add meaning to your life and offer you a sense of your identity.

In the same way, the Church offers you the chance to gather around a table and identify yourselves as Catholic Christians by celebrating the Eucharist. No matter where you are along the river of life, breaking bread with one another at Mass gives you a chance to powerfully remember Jesus' life, death and resurrection and to reflect upon their meaning for your own journey.

What nourishment do you need to continue your journey of faith? What gifts (involvement, leadership and abilities) can you offer the Church to help feed others who depend upon your presence and participation?

Shooting the Rapids

Much of the excitement of our tubing adventure was anticipating the rapids awaiting us at the end of our tubing trip. Sure enough, they were there, except not as expected.

It had rained hard the previous day which caused the force of the current to pick up considerably. Even though we knew the rapids were coming, we were not prepared for the deceptively powerful force that the river had in store for us.

Life, like our tubing trip, provides us with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Even if we know they are coming, we still can't totally prepare ourselves.

Anyone experiencing a loss of someone close, a breakup of a friendship or a move to another area or school can testify that life seems unfair at times and leads you to wonder and question. It's not uncommon for young people to become depressed at some point during the teen years, especially after hitting some of the rough rapids which mark these years.

While you do not have control over where and when you encounter rapids in life, you do have control over how you choose to navigate them. Who do you go to when you feel down and depressed? What do you seek to help you through these tough times?

These answers are what you can control. If you choose to seek some quick relief, you may find yourself turning to people or substances that end up hurting you more deeply in the long run. You can also choose to pretend the rapids aren't there or imagine that they can be escaped. Either way, when the time comes to navigate the rapids, you find yourself unprepared and overwhelmed.

Even the disciples were not above this type of misleading thinking. Time and again, Jesus would tell them of the type of suffering and death he had to face once they arrived in Jerusalem. And time and again, they didn't get it.

Peter insisted that Jesus not go (Matthew 16:21-23). James and John—and their mother—jockeyed over who would get to sit next to Jesus in the Kingdom after all was said and done (Matthew 20:20-24), and Luke's Gospel says that "they understood nothing of this" (Luke 18:34a).

Jesus' closest friends tried to navigate the rapids by looking the other way and not seeing the gift that was with them all along. So it's no surprise that we often choose to try to get through the tough times of life without seeking God's guidance or relying on God's strength.

What have been some particularly tough events that you have had to navigate in your life? How did you first react? Who or what ended up truly helping you through these rapids?

Emergency Rescue

Approach the rapids from the left, we had been told. This would enable us to paddle over to the pier where the guides would be waiting for us to help us out of the water. I remember thinking, "Why would we need help getting out of the water?" —

After navigating the rapids, I soon found out. The current had increased rapidly since we first began six hours earlier. Guides were waiting on the pier, knowing full well the effort it would take to make sure everyone got out of the water.

As a guide pulled me up, I— saw Sam, the one person in the group who couldn't swim, float helplessly past the dock in his tube. I yelled to a guide that Sam couldn't swim and needed help.

The guide immediately grabbed a rope, jumped into the swift current and made his way toward Sam. He caught up with him, tied his rope around the tube and both were pulled safely to shore as the rest of the group cheered.

The sooner you learn that you cannot make this journey through the river of life alone, the better you'll be at navigating the waters along the way. It's so tempting to think that you are strong enough or brave enough or so in control of things that you need not rely upon others.

Yet it's this type of thinking that leads you directly into the loss, hurt, pain or fear that you are trying to avoid. Take the person who gets hurt in a relationship and decides to go it alone to avoid the pain. This makes sense until that person realizes that the loneliness is worse than the risk of being hurt again.

Thank God for the guides who knew the river and knew we would need help even when we didn't think so. And thank God for the courage of the guide who jumped into the water to get Sam without even knowing how special he was.

Luckily, God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows we cannot make this journey through life on our own.

That's why Paul's letter to the people of Corinth tells them that together they are the body of Christ and that trying to break away will only cripple the body and result in division (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). It's why we are invited and encouraged to be a part of a larger church that supports and assists one another. And because each individual has different gifts, we can use all of these to help one another.

Has there been someone in your life who jumped in to help save you from drifting off down the river? Who have been the significant people and communities who have courageously guided and supported you?


You can bet that the story of our lazy day on the river has been told and retold over the years by those who participated in it. Those who chose not to show up couldn't share in such a tale. We all have to jump into life to be able to savor the adventure that it is. Chances are, the more positive risks we take by getting involved with others through service, friendship and leadership, the more likely we'll gain wisdom to pass on to others who follow us. This is the legacy of faith we accept once we take the plunge. In the end, that is what Jesus asks us to do—to echo and retell the Good News that is being told to us right now by others who believe. With eyes, hearts and arms wide open, we will indeed make this a journey to remember.

World Youth Day: FAQS

— Who started World Youth Day?

In 1985, Pope John Paul II invited young people from around the world to join him in Rome on Palm Sunday to observe the United Nations International Year of Youth. At this gathering, the Holy Father initiated World Youth Day. In addition to the annual celebration of World Youth Day, the pope invites young people to gather with him every other year for the International Gathering of World Youth Day. This immense convocation of up to several million people usually takes an entire week and occurs in a different country each time. In 2002, it was hosted by Toronto, Canada.

— Why was it begun?

World Youth Day is a day to celebrate youth, in all their diversity and goodness, and to encourage young people to lead the Church both now and in the future. The bishops of the United States, wanting to place full attention on the youth of our nation, voted to move the celebration in the United States from Palm Sunday to the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (usually the last weekend in October).

— When is the 2003 U.S. celebration?

This year, World Youth Day is celebrated on October 26 with the theme, —Navigating the Waters.— During this weekend, parishes are invited to bless their young people, involve them in all aspects of the Mass, affirm their leadership and invite them to use their gifts in service to the Church and the world.

— What can you do?

Talk with your pastor or youth minister to see what is being planned for World Youth Day at your parish and how you can become more involved in the efforts. The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry has developed an annual resource manual to assist parishes in planning. To order the manual or to download some of the prayers and blessings, go to www.nfcym.org.



Why was Jesus always hanging around sinners?


Jesus was a gifted healer. He mended the brokenness in people's lives. The outcasts, the powerless, the sick and the despised all found a lot of good news in what Jesus said and did. Jesus treated each person with dignity and respect and healed all those who came to him in faith. Many with power and status, such as the Jewish and Roman leaders, refused to admit their sinfulness and turned their backs on Jesus, remaining broken by their own power and fear. They didn't want to hang around Jesus, rather than the reverse!


Where is God when my life hits the rapids?


When life overwhelms us, we often wonder where God is. In fact, God never leaves us. He's with us for the long ride of life, including its rapids. Perhaps you're expecting God to make the journey easy for you—and that's how you expect to experience the Lord. More than likely, though, God's power will be experienced in the courage and strength you find to deal not only with rapids but also with sorrow, loss and failure. St. Paul said that when he was weak, God was strong in his life. That will be true for you as well.


Why does my life seem to have so many rapids in it?


So many changes and choices face every teen. Everyone has an opinion on which way is best or what's worth checking out. That's why the teen years are filled with a lot of trial and error. You take a wrong turn or heed some bad advice and end up someplace you'd rather not be. So you move down the river wiser and a little more seasoned. It's a difficult, but very important, process that's made a whole lot easier with faithful friends and a faith-filled community that helps keep your head above water!

Michael Theisen, author of more than a dozen books and a popular speaker as well, is director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Rochester, New York. He and his wife, Mary, have three children, two of whom are teenagers.

Mike Balliet (18), Teresa Ober (15), Michael Rondeau (18) and Matthew Rooney (17), members of the youth committee of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, met with author Michael Theisen to polish this issue and pose the questions you see answered here.

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