“What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?”
As it turns out, the world’s youth can be counted on. And they can be counted on in masses.
With those words, spoken in Rome on Palm Sunday in 1984, then Pope John Paul II (now Pope Saint John Paul II) surprised many people, including, probably, more than a few Catholics. On December 20, 1985, he gave another speech that probably surprised those people all over again: this time, he announced that the next year would see the first ever World Youth Day held by the Catholic Church.
The premise of World Youth Day is simple: bring together the world’s youth, that they might grow in and bear witness to their Catholic faith. High school-aged kids from all over the world (along with their chaperones – let’s not be crazy, here) converge on one spot and engage in one massive pilgrimage that truly represents that universality of the Catholic Church. The event is held every two to three years in a different country. Basically, this is the Olympics of the Catholic youth. Every day for either one week or two – some groups opt for a longer pilgrimage – participants attend catechesis sessions (a fancy term for religion classes), celebrate masses, share meals, and swap stories and trinkets with other teenagers from other countries.
Having been a WYD pilgrim myself, I can honestly say that this is a wonderful and unparalleled religious experience. For many pilgrims, this is the first time they’re surrounded – literally surrounded – by people actively engaging in the same faith and not by people who are nonreligious, and sometimes downright anti-religious. For other pilgrims, it’s a chance to break out of the Catholic cradle and see what it looks like to actually and actively engage with religion. It’s a chance to see what the face of the Catholic Church looks like somewhere other than the media which, let’s face it, love to take a persecutory stance against any and all faith traditions. With catechesis sessions by religious from all over the world on various subjects, it’s a chance to learn how to put their Catholic faith into action in their everyday life. In Sydney, I attended a session about praying in difficult situations with a black South African bishop. There’s nothing like hearing a person who’s been in truly difficult situations talk about finding hope and the strength to love your enemy to make you realize that your own life isn’t really all that rough.
The next World Youth Day is next year in Kraków, Poland. Two years after the canonization of the pope that began the WYD celebration, the whole shebang returns to the native land of Karol Wojtyła (kah-roll voy-tih-wah), the man who would become a pope and shake up the world, to pray a celebratory mass.
My family parish is taking a group to WYD next year and, having recently been in Poland myself, I was invited to be the resident expert on Poland and to help with some of the preparatory work before they set off next July (these duties largely include holding bags and teaching the kids to exclaim, “Święty Jacek z pierogami!”). Last weekend, the archdiocese of Detroit held a pre-departure event at the campus of Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, an ethnic Polish Catholic community in the northwest suburbs of Detroit.
This particular community was chosen to host this event because, believe it or not, it held a very special place in Karol Cardinal Wojtyła’s heart. He came to this community not once, but twice: once in 1969 and again in 1976. During one of his sojourns in Orchard Lake, he told the congregation that the world needed them to be there and to continue their mission of education and religious ministry. This year, they continued that mission by helping to prepare the youth of Metro Detroit for an event that could literally change their lives.
Last weekend’s event included some icebreakers and get-to-know-you projects. What’s the use in going to meet people from all over the world if you don’t know the people in your own community? The kids were also presented with a brief biography of Saint John Paul II, who is one of the patron saints of next year’s WYD events. They toured the grounds, made a small pilgrimage to the room where Karol Cardinal Wojtyła slept during both of his stays in Metro Detroit, sampled some kremówki (krem-oov-kee; Polish confectionary perfection embodied in a cream pie) courtesy of the Polish Mission, and celebrated mass together as a group of WYD pilgrims for the first time.
For many of these kids, this event that took place twenty minutes from home was their first taste of discomfort for a religious cause, which the actual World Youth Day pilgrimage will be on a grand scale. It was hot, and we were outside. There were tables and chairs sitting ten feet away from us, and we ate our lunch in the grass. We were ready for a nap, and mass hadn’t even started yet. I can almost guarantee that it will be hot – my two months of summer in Poland tell me that much. No matter what, these pilgrims will sit in odd places, often for hours. In Australia, we sat on a horse racetrack for over twelve hours waiting for Pope Benedict to celebrate mass. After running around all day participating in WYD events, trying out their high school Spanish on every group of Spanish-speakers they come across, and playing games of pick-up soccer with Pacific Islanders during the waiting periods, they will learn the true meaning of the phrase ‘dog tired.’
Here’s hoping that all of that will help our youth grow in their faith, find their place in their Church, and give them the courage they need witness their faith every day.