Pope John Paul II greets cheering pilgrims at World Youth Day in Toronto July 25. The pontiff was clearly energized by the enthusiasm of the crowd during his first meeting with the youths. CNS photo from Reuters

WYD 20 years later: Welcoming Francis, remembering John Paul II

  • July 21, 2022

It’s 20 years to the (give or take) day since Pope John Paul II visited Canada, and Canada is once again graced with another papal visit.

But the two visits cannot be more different. Pope Francis, to his credit, has come to Canada with head bowed as he tries to make up for the Church’s difficult past with our nation’s original people, apologizing for the wrongs done by the Church to Indigenous people. Contrast that to those joyful — and hot and steamy — days of 2002. Pope John Paul II arrived in Toronto and could likely hear the joyful voices of thousands of pilgrims who descended on the city for World Youth Day as he took those first steps off the papal plane that had landed at Pearson International Airport. It would be the future saint’s third and final visit to Canada, and touched off an unprecedented sense of joy that infected every part of the city.

It was a joy that had been building slowly, surely since Toronto was awarded World Youth Day. Fr. Thomas Rosica and his organizing team had been working, almost anonymously, behind the scenes putting the event together for years, and now it was here. And what an event it would turn out to be.

Anyone who lived in Toronto will be hard-pressed to forget those days when thousands of youth came to city, bringing with them their youthful — and faith-filled — exuberance.

The worldwide Church was in crisis at the time, with the international spotlight shining brightly on a sex-abuse scandal that had erupted earlier that year in Boston. In an increasingly secular world that was already turning its back on religion as a whole, and the Catholic Church in particular, it made for some very dark days.

But all that seemed to be shoved into the background, all because thousands of youth were here and were unashamed to scream out their love for Jesus, God, their Catholic Church and a pontiff who despite his age they considered one with them.

They were exciting days for the Church in the city and beyond. No matter where you went, you could not help but run into the more than 100,000 pilgrims — easily marked out by their red backpacks, half of which it seemed were worn on pilgrim’s chests — and feeling the energy they brought with them as they celebrated their faith together. Whether it was on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds where the event was centred or anywhere beyond, they screamed “We’re here and we are proud of our faith.” They were indeed the “salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

And then there was the 800,000 or so who braved one of those wicked southern Ontario storms that temporarily drained the air of all the humidity, only for it to return in a more oppressive way when the rain ceased, to celebrate the papal vigil at Downsview Park. Thousands were out in the open air, and as can be seen in Michael Swan’s photos from that magical evening, found any way they could to seek shelter from the storm.

It had been years since I had been on the CNE grounds, and all the joy I had remembered from the midway rides, the food building, concerts and ball games could not hold a candle to what I found there during World Youth Day. Pilgrims dancing to the music that poured from the catechesis sessions, proudly flying the flags of their homelands as they interacted with new friends from other nations. It was an incredible display.

From The Register’s perspective, it was a boon to us reconnecting with a segment of the population that had been given short shrift in years past. Under Paula Antonello’s leadership, The Register kicked off its popular Youth Speak News section that has launched numerous journalism careers and is still thriving two decades on. Outside of us, WYD also planted the seeds of Canada’s national television broadcaster, Salt + Light TV. And the boost to a Church that drew back so many youth cannot be underestimated.

The Inukshuk created for the event remains as the city’s legacy project for WYD 2002, standing in Battery Park near Ontario Place on the waterfront as a reminder of those faith-filled days in the city. It stands, as these structures do, as a solid guardian keeping vigil over the land, a safe harbour, just as Jesus is for Christians.

Sure, our Church has had its troubles — look no further than Pope Francis and the reason he is here right now. The celebration of the faith may not be out there in your face 24 hours a day, as it was for five days in July 20 years ago. But rest assured, it is there, and it is good.

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