WYD 2002: A look back

By  By Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, Catholic Register Special
  • July 15, 2007

John Paul II was a bridge to young people


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I will never forget the scenes in Rome surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. More than half the crowd of four million-plus people that descended upon Rome were young people from every part of the world. Such a thing would have been unthinkable 25 years ago.
They streamed into St. Peter’s Square in interminably long lines, carrying backpacks, sleeping bags, blankets, pictures, flags, water bottles and radios. After 12-15 hour waits, they wept openly as they passed for 15-20 seconds before the body of an old man lying in state in St. Peter’s Basilica — a man who spent his life preaching that restraint and self-sacrifice were more important than pleasure and excess. Then on Friday morning April 8, millions more young people watched the funeral of someone who told them to become “Saints of the new millennium,” to be “salt of the earth and light of the world,” and to spend their lives serving others before satisfying themselves.

Why were young people the world over so deeply affected by the death of Pope John Paul II, leaving pastors, parents, teachers and cynics scratching their heads in confusion? Why would teenagers and young “twentysomethings” feel so close to an old Polish man — a church leader — who told them what to do? I have done a lot of thinking and reflecting on these things, especially since World Youth Day 2002, five years ago here in Toronto.

In John Paul II, young people found a solid point of reference. Young people today need heroes like John Paul II and they don’t want to live on the surface. In a world that constantly panders to the young, John Paul II presented a challenging church that combines the truth with charity and pastoral care.

In the 1970s, after the Second Vatican Council, in our attempts to be avant garde, relevant and prophetic, we allowed many traditions to fall by the wayside. Now it is the younger generation themselves who are reviving devotional practices more familiar to their grandparents than their parents. Though these same young people are more involved in traditional conservative religious practices, they’re also very receptive to social justice messages and they are actively involved in serving the poor and helping to bring about systemic changes in the world and in society. Their own faith and commitment have been inspiring and edifying for me and many of my generation who simply don’t know who we are and where we are going any more.

There was no mediocrity, fatigue or heaviness in John Paul II’s message to young people. The Polish pontiff set the bar high, and he lived above it. The old warrior was clear and uncompromising in his expectations of young people, but he was not condescending, pedantic or incomprehensible in his approach.

John Paul II genuinely cared about young people and followed through by focusing time, attention and resources on them. He enacted in his life the line in the classic movie Field of Dreams: “If we build it, they will come.” Because he knew deep down inside that if the church doesn’t build something for young people, they will likely go elsewhere. And they do go elsewhere. Too often, those elsewheres are dangerous and very scary places.

John Paul II built something for young people, involved them and loved them in spite of the outward appearances and more often because of them. As a mainline religious leader who was extremely effective at engaging youth, his example is highly instructive.

Let us consider six key aspects of Pope John Paul’s ministry to and impact on young people that have emerged through his brilliant teaching and the incredible pilgrimage of World Youth Days across the face of the earth.

First was his repeated message about the radiant splendour of Jesus Christ as the unique Lord and Saviour of all. In order to be authentic believers, we must have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus. Christianity, Catholicism, the sacraments are not courses, things, ideas, passing fancies, symbols. They are a person and His name is Jesus. Theology alone, trendy pastoral programs and new age, politically correct jargon will not save us. Jesus will.

Second was his teaching on human dignity. Life is an extraordinary adventure, a God-given gift to be cherished, treasured and protected. Is it any surprise that so many hundreds of thousands of young people consider themselves to be explicitly pro-life, while their parents are so whimsical and non-committal to the issues of life and death? In John Paul II’s “Culture of Life” we must make room for the stranger and the homeless. We must comfort and care for the sick and dying. We must look after the aged and the abandoned. We must welcome the immigrant. We must defend innocent children waiting to be born.

Third, John Paul II told young people that there is every reason for the truth of the cross to be called the Good News. Young people took these words to heart and have carried the cross around the world for the past 20 years. We are unlikely to ever forget the scenes and memories of the World Youth Day Cross on its historic, 43,000-kilometre pilgrimage across our own country in 2001 and 2002.

Fourth, John Paul II taught us that the adventure of orthodoxy — the challenge of fidelity and integrity, authenticity and solidarity — is what attracts young people today. Young people don’t want to live on the surface. In a world that constantly panders to the young, a challenging church, which combines the truth with charity and pastoral care, is a very attractive proposition. How many times did John Paul II speak to young people reminding them that the family is the privileged place for the humanization of the person and of society, and that the future of the world and of the church passes through it?

Fifth, John Paul II issued a clarion call to commitment. To his young friends he said: “Many and enticing are the voices that call out to you from all sides: many of these voices speak to you of a joy that can be had with money, success and power. Mostly they propose a joy that comes with the superficial and fleeting pleasure of the senses.” The alternative call was Jesus’ siren song. “He calls you to be the salt and light of the world, to live in justice, to become instruments of love and peace.” The choice was stark, self-denying, life-defining and irrevocable. It was between “good and evil, between light and darkness, between life and death.” There were no shortcuts or compromises for John Paul II, only clarity. And that is what the young are seeking today, not quick answers but Gospel clarity.

Sixth point. The late pope reminded us that the heroes the world offers to young people today are terribly flawed. They leave us so empty. The world today, and especially young people, have the increasing need of the fascinating lives of the saints. During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II certainly helped us to rediscover these heroes and heroines in our tradition — in fact, he beatified 1,338 women and men, and canonized 482 saints. How often do we hold up the lives of the saints and blesseds as the real heroes and heroines for young people today? We have so much to learn from them.

Finally, one of the most profound lessons that John Paul II taught us in the twilight of his pontificate was that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide His infirmities, as most public figures do, He let the whole world see what he went through. In a youth-obsessed culture in which people are constantly urged to fight or deny the ravages of time, age, disease, he reminded us that aging and suffering are a natural part of being human. Where the old and infirm are so easily put in nursing homes and often forgotten, the pope was a timely and powerful reminder that our parents and grandparents, the sick, the handicapped and the dying have great value.

On Saturday morning April 2, 2005, as he lay dying in his bedroom in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican, more than 100,000 people were gathered below in St. Peter’s Square. More than half of the people were young people. They sang. They prayed. They wept. Upstairs on the third floor, his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislas Dziwisz, held the pope’s hand and they were able to hear the singing in the square. He told the Holy Father: “Listen, they have come in great numbers. They are here for you.” Forcing himself to speak, the pope uttered painstakingly: “I have looked for you and now you have come to me. I thank you.” These were among his final words. How fitting to describe the centrepiece of his life, papacy and his enduring legacy to humanity: a bridge to young people and the future generation.

As we celebrate the great and blessed events of July 2002 this year, let us ask the Servant of God Pope John Paul II to pray for us and intercede for us, and especially for the young people who found in him a father, a grandfather, a teacher and a demanding friend who loved them. May those same young people find in us a rock, a shelter, a harbour, a home and a heart.

(Fr. Rosica is chief executive officer of Salt+Light TV. He was national director of World Youth Day 2002, held in Toronto.)


Church bears fruit from seeds of WYD 2002

By Caitlin Badger, The Catholic Register

TORONTO - Five years ago, more than 800,000 people gathered in Toronto’s Downsview Park to celebrate Mass with Pope John Paul II. Through a night of pouring rain, thunder and lightning, young pilgrims from all over the world sat in an open field huddled beneath blankets, umbrellas and tarps as they awaited the culminating celebration of World Youth Day 2002. It would be Pope John Paul II’s last of 17 international World Youth Day celebrations, the first of which he personally inaugurated in Rome in 1984.

A lot has changed in five years. Pope John Paul II passed away in 2005 and Pope Benedict XVI succeeded him. That same year, Cologne, Germany, hosted the new Holy Father at his first World Youth Day celebration. Many young people have grown into adulthood, leaving their youth behind to find a calling, begin a career, start a family and raise young ones of their own. The crowds have departed and in Downsview Park, hardly a trace remains to indicate the one-time presence of hundreds of thousands of young people who gathered there to live out the theme of WYD 2002 as “the salt of the Earth and the light of the world.” And yet, while life has gone on in Toronto and across Canada, the pope’s final message at WYD 2002 is far from forgotten.

Following the Angelus prayer that drew the July 2002 celebrations to a close, Pope John Paul II quoted St. Augustine, saying, “We have been happy together in the light we have shared. We have really enjoyed being together. We have really rejoiced. But as we leave one another, let us not leave Him.”

Across Canada, this message has been taken to heart. Since 2002, many Canadian dioceses have seen an increase in the size of their youth ministries. Young Catholics have become more active in the celebration of Mass. Parishes and dioceses have become increasingly aware of and open to the important presence of young people in the church.

Fr. Edwin Gonsalves, director of the Office of Catholic Youth for the archdiocese of Toronto, said WYD was and continues to be “a blessing for the church in Canada.” Young people have become committed to the lives of parishes, taking part in Mass as lectors and musicians. Many have also attended workshops to learn the skills necessary to minister to other young people.

“Peer ministry is the important thing,” said Gonsalves. “Reaching out to one another in solidarity, that is how conversions happen.”

Gonsalves has also noticed that many young Catholics have become stronger in faith and people of prayer since 2002.

“It’s not just me saying this, it’s the youths’ own families and the pastors who have noticed it,” he said. “World Youth Day 2002 was a time for people to reflect on the theme of the celebration by asking, ‛how can I be the salt of the Earth and the light of the world’?” he said.

Of the six priests ordained in Toronto this year, four credit their vocations at least partially to an experience at a World Youth Day event. While none of these vocations took place in 2002, Neil MacCarthy, director of the office of public relations and communications for the archdiocese, said that “vocational seeds were planted in 2002, and they are still nurtured and sown today, but seeds take time to grow.” He believes that in the coming years, many who are ordained will have experienced a vocation at WYD 2002.

John Stevens, co-ordinator of youth ministry for the archdiocese of Halifax, has noticed that following WYD 2002 many young parishioners are more “fully, actively and consciously participating in Masses.” Upon returning from WYD 2002, a lot of young people spoke about the adoration of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation in which they partook in Toronto, he said. Since then, both of those things have become very important to many young Catholics in Halifax.

In Vancouver, Clayton Imoo, director of the archdiocese’s Youth Ministry Office, says that since WYD in Toronto, many young people have started up youth ministries and are serving as leaders in their own parishes. Imoo said that although the archdiocese of Vancouver does not have a mandated young adult office, those who returned from WYD wanting to “get involved” have done so in their parishes.

“Since 2002, more parishes are doing intentional youth programs, more people are in youth co-ordinator positions and there is a bigger interest in young adult groups,” he said.

Following WYD 2002, several young people felt called to share the Catholic faith through television media, and the Salt + Light Television network emerged in July of 2003.

“Salt + Light would never have taken off without World Youth Day,” said Fr. Tom Rosica, CEO of WYD 2002 and now CEO of Salt + Light Television. “The name itself carries on the legacy of World Youth Day and the great wisdom of Pope John Paul II to use the media as a new way of evangelization. (Salt + Light) is one of the most visible signs that World Youth Day took place in Canada.”

The network is unique in that it employs several young ad-ults, a strategy that utilizes what Rosica calls “the dyn-amism of World Youth Day.” The station, which is the first to broadcast 100-percent Catholic content across Canada, “fosters the Catholic culture that was so much a part of Pope John Paul II’s mission,” said Rosica. “It’s a really lovely, normal follow-up (to World Youth Day 2002).”

In the archdiocese of Toronto, interest in rallies has grown since WYD 2002. Every summer, some 200 youth from Toronto, St. Catharines and Hamilton gather for a two-day rally at Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., camping out and attending a Mass together. These rallies, said MacCarthy, are modelled on World Youth Day.

Another large gathering of young Catholics will take place in Halifax next month. More than 1,000 young people have signed up for the Steubenville Atlantic High School Youth Conference, a weekend of music, prayer, fellowship, entertainment and liturgies taking place at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., Aug. 3-5. Hundreds more are on a waiting list to attend. The overwhelming interest and response to the event are “a good indicator of the things that came out of Toronto.... The momentum of World Youth Day has led us to this,” said Stevens.

“(Hosting) Steubenville five years ago would have been a difficult task in this neck of the woods.”

Likewise, in Vancouver, Imoo said, “The Toronto experience helped us as a diocese to know that we can put on big diocesan events. (World Youth Day) was both an affirmation and a challenge in that respect.”

Stevens, MacCarthy, Imoo and Gonsalves all agree that while many Canadian Catholics complained about the cost of hosting World Youth Day in 2002 (the event ran a deficit of $38 million that was borne by dioceses across Canada), the positive outcomes have been immeasurable, intangible, long lasting and invaluable to both the young people and the Catholic Church in Canada.

Pope John Paul II said to the youth, “Do not be afraid to live out your faith.” Across Canada, especially in the past five years, young Catholics have embraced this message, making themselves a living example of what Gonsalves calls the late Holy Father’s “beautiful vision for the church.”

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