Pope John Paul II enjoyed amazing popularity among young Catholics throughout his 26-year pontificate. The strongest symbol of the importance he accorded to this connection is, without doubt, World Youth Days. It’s not remarkable that the Pope saw his youthful friends as a metaphor of renewal and hope; what is remarkable is that young people also see and understand themselves this way.
Through these gatherings, John Paul II made it clear: young people are not only the future of the Church, they are also its present. WYD 2002 was for the Canadian Church a privileged moment of re-commitment to the deeply Christian values that are at the heart of Canada. These values, now often ignored or hidden, reveal who we really are: Gospel agents of salt and light in the world today.
The experience of World Youth Days in Argentina, Spain, Poland, Denver, Manila, Paris, Rome, Toronto, Cologne, and this week in Sydney brought much new life to each of the countries where the great events took place. As we celebrate the event in Sydney, we need to take stock of the gifts we have received and ask how the vision and hope of John Paul II have influenced our own efforts in pastoral ministry with young people and young adults in each country. What have the joy, enthusiasm, exuberance and creativity of our World Youth Day experiences taught us? How have they transformed Youth and Young Adult Ministry in each host diocese and country? Have we initiated a ‘preferential option’ for young people in the Church today?
The principal elements of World Youth Days contribute greatly to an effective pastoral ministry with young people and with young adults. These elements—Christ, Sacred Scripture, catechesis, the sacraments (especially Reconciliation and Eucharist), piety, devotion, the World Youth Day Cross, the saints, together with the moments of pilgrimage, the Youth Festival, social service projects, vocations—must find a central place in our pastoral efforts with young people.
The New Evangelization at the heart of John Paul II’s teaching is about instilling hope and vibrancy in the Church—to combat the cynicism, despair and meaninglessness prevalent in the world today. John Paul II knew well that the world struggles with separation, fragmentation, loneliness, alienation, and rampant globalization that exploits the poor. Through the gift of World Youth Days, John Paul II offered us powerful opportunities to become bearers of hope, agents of community, neighbours to those around us, and instruments of a moral globalization that must accompany all our international efforts.
During his Angelus address at the conclusion of the 17th World Youth Day in Toronto, the Holy Father said: “This World Youth Day must mark a re-awakening of pastoral attention to the young in Canada. May the enthusiasm of this moment be the spark that is needed to launch a new era of powerful witness to the gospel!… My wish for all of you who are here is that the commitments you have made during these days of faith and celebration will bring forth abundant fruits of dedication and witness. May you always treasure the memory of Toronto!”
World Youth Days are celebrations of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Faith. At the welcoming ceremony of World Youth Day 2002, Pope John Paul II said: “With your gaze set firmly on him [Jesus], you will discover the path of forgiveness and reconciliation in a world often laid waste by violence and terror.” The person of Jesus Christ must be at the heart of our efforts with young adults. In order to be authentic believers, we must have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. How is Christ at the heart of our efforts with young people? What is distinctive and unique about being Catholic?
The principal elements of World Youth Days—Christ, Sacred Scripture, catechesis, the sacraments (especially Reconciliation and Eucharist), piety, devotion, the World Youth Day Cross, the saints, together with the moments of pilgrimage, the Youth Festival, social service projects, vocations—must find a central place in our pastoral efforts with young people.
Pope John Paul’s biblical theme for WYD 2002 was most appropriate for our society and world that are often steeped in mediocrity and darkness. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). What biblical stories and images animate our pastoral ministry with young people?
During WYD 2002 in Toronto, over 100,000 young people celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Through this sacrament Christ lets us meet him and brings out the best in us. In our pastoral work with young people, do we present this sacrament as a privileged encounter with Christ who heals, forgives and liberates us?
World Youth Days offer the Church profound moments to deepen our Christian piety and devotion. In Canada during 2001-2002, the historic, 43,000-km pilgrimage of the WYD Cross and the magnificent presentation of the Stations of the Cross were a provocative, profound witness of the Christian story in the heart of a modern city. How have we continued this tradition in our parish communities and youth activities? Do we acknowledge the need for solid, biblically rooted Christian piety and devotion in the lives of young people today?
During his pontificate, John Paul II proclaimed 1,338 blesseds and 482 saints. Young adults need heroes and heroines today, and the Pope gave us outstanding models of holiness and humanity. Nine young blesseds and saints were patrons of WYD 2002, several more were patrons for WYD 2005, and now John Paul II himself is among the 10 patrons for WYD 2008 in Sydney. How often do we present these holy men and women as the real role models for young people today?
Have we taken to heart Pope John Paul II’s invitation to young people to consider lives of consecrated service in the Church today? “think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good! There are many priests, seminarians and consecrated persons here today; be close to them and support them! And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.”
How many people are no longer afraid because they saw in John Paul II one who was not afraid? How many young seminarians and religious have spoken their ‘yes’ because of him? How many young men and women have discovered meaning in John Paul II’s theology of the body and have entered into marriage with deep faith and conviction? How many ordinary people have done extraordinary things because of his influence, his teaching and his gestures?
Let us give thanks to God for Pope John Paul II who believed in young people. We are now shepherded by Pope Benedict XVI, someone who is deeply committed to bringing young people to Christ. On the morning after his election, Benedict XVI spoke at the end of a Mass: “I think in particular of young people. […] With you, dear young people, future and hope of the Church and of humanity, I will continue to dialogue, listening to your expectations in an attempt to help you to encounter ever more profoundly the living Christ, who is eternally young.” In a homily a few days later, he said: “I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ—and you will find true life.”
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.
Former National Director, World Youth Day 2002
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network