Many journalists and onlookers to World Youth Days have nicknamed the massive international gatherings “the Catholic Olympics.” And some have referred to the ‘World Youth Day Cross’ as the ‘Olympic Torch’ of the mega Church events. Let’s consider for a moment the story of the World Youth Day Cross. It is known as the “Holy Year Cross”, the “Jubilee Cross”, the “WYD Cross”, the “Pilgrim Cross”. Many simply call it the “Youth Cross” as it was given to young people by Pope John Paul II during the Holy Year of Redemption (1983-1984) to carry on pilgrimage around the world. In handing over the cross to young people, John Paul II said: “My dear young people, at the conclusion of the Holy Year, I entrust to you the sign of this Jubilee Year: the Cross of Christ! Carry it throughout the world as a symbol of Christ’s love for humanity, and announce to everyone that only in the death and resurrection of Christ can we find salvation and redemption”(April 22,1984).
The first pilgrimage of the Holy Year Cross (as it was first known) was in July 1984 to Munich, Germany for the “Katholikentag” (Catholic days). From Germany, it went to Prague, at that time still behind the Iron Curtain. In 1985, during the United Nations International Year of Youth, the simple wooden Cross would become forever associated with World Youth Days. Thus began the great pilgrimage of the World Youth Day Cross to every corner of the globe. In 1985, the Cross traveled throughout Europe – to Italy, France, Luxembourg, Ireland, Scotland, Malta and Germany.
The largest pilgrimage of the Cross
While the Cross has been part of every World Youth Day since the beginning, I would like to focus in on one particular international event when the Cross made is most arduous and perhaps most historic pilgrimage. On Palm Sunday, April 11, 2001, the World Youth Day Cross was entrusted to the Canadian Church by Italian youth who had hosted the Great Jubilee World Youth Day in 2000 during an impressive ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. The following day, the Cross was flown across the Atlantic and began its longest pilgrimage across an enormous country, travelling for the next 14 months by commercial airline, light aircraft, dog sled, pick-up truck, tractor, bus, sail boat and fishing boat. It visited parish churches, youth detention centres, hospitals and nursing homes, prisons, schools, universities, national historic sites, shopping centres, downtown streets, nightclub districts and parks.
This Canadian “Cross” pilgrimage was interrupted for three days in February 2002 when, with the permission and blessing of Pope John Paul II, it was taken to Ground Zero in New York as a sign of hope for the people of the United States and of the entire world in the wake of the September 11th tragedy.
Earlier on a cold February morning at a mass in a parish church near the United Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, the Vatican’s Ambassador to the UN told a delegation of Canadian youth, Emergency Medical Workers, Canadian police and firefighters in his moving homily: “What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: a crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it. Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it… We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes. In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious and cultural factors emerge. The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region. It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates.”
From that liturgy, New York City police and firefighters escorted our convoy of buses, that had been wrapped with the words of Pope John Paul II: “The Cross walks with young people and young people walk with the Cross” to lower Manhattan and into the massive area of destruction now known as Ground Zero. What happened next was a very public act of defiance and courage. Six young people from the World Youth Day 2002 delegation took the large cross out of the specially built trailer and processed with it up to the memorial platform built for the families of those who perished on September 11. We all sang the Taizé refrain: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom”. With us in procession was the family of one of the Canadian victims of the September 11 tragedy. As the World Youth Day Cross was placed at the edge of the huge crater where the twin towers once stood, the singing grew louder, against the background sounds of trucks and cranes removing debris. Here in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror and death, we raised up a wooden cross – an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol for Christians. The significance of the action was lost on no one.
Since April 11, 2001, the World Youth Day Cross has literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It has visited our cities, towns and rural areas, drawing throngs of people into the streets for processions, prayers, all-night vigils, tears, moments of reconciliation, healing and peace. Such expressions of popular piety have been absent for far too many years from the Canadian ecclesial landscape.
Canadians are unlikely to forget the powerful images of the World Youth Day Cross on its historic, 43,000 kilometer pilgrimage through more than 350 cities, towns and villages – from sea to sea to sea to sea.
Through the largest pilgrimage of the Cross, Canadians rediscovered their country, and its deeply Christian roots. In July 2002, the Pope referred to the pilgrimage of the Cross upon his arrival on Canadian soil: “In the French version of your national anthem, “O Canada”, you sing: “Car ton bras sait porter l’épée, il sait porter la croix. ” [Welcome Address at the Airport on July 23, 2002].
It is that same Cross that has served as an instrument of unity, healing and reconciliation for the people of Brazil and her neighboring countries over the past two years.
When all the commotion and noise of World Youth Day is over, I am convinced that one of the lasting memories that remains in the host country is the simple, wooden cross that has been a huge blessing and a source of consolation, healing, strength and peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who have embraced it, touched it, kissed it, and allowed themselves to be touched by the awesome message and memory of the one who died upon it.
Photo: Young people carry the World Youth Day cross to city hall in Rio de Janeiro July 10 as Brazilians make final preparations for World Youth Day and the visit by Pope Francis. Young people from around the globe with join the pontiff for the celebration in R io July 23-28. (CNS photo/Ricardo Moraes, Reuters)