This month, something very special is happening.
Teenagers and young adults from all over the world are coming together in a demonstration of faith, solidarity, and – dare I say it – Christian love for each other and their world.
And most people don’t know about it.
Most people never hear about World Youth Day, a worldwide gathering of Catholic young people from all walks of life, despite the fact that the event regularly brings several million pilgrims together. The event was the brainchild of Pope John Paul II and one of his close advisers, Cardinal Ratzinger (now, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). Always of the belief that young people held an extremely important position in the Church, in 1985 John Paul II invited young people from all over the world to come to Rome and celebrate the International Year of Youth with him. From then on, the event was held every 3 – 4 years, and always in a different place, allowing young people from all over the world to participate.
Thus, I like to think of it as the Junior Olympics for the Church.
I had the opportunity to attend World Youth Day in 2008, when I was still in high school. That year, it was held in Sydney, Australia, earning it the nickname ‘WYDSYD’ and the unofficial motto of ‘Just keep swimming.’ That year saw a small turnout of pilgrims, simply because Australia is so far away from, well, pretty much everything else: Only about 400,000 pilgrims showed up looking for Jesus (and, during down time, Nemo).
The actual World Youth Day is only one day. However, even pilgrims recognize that it’s not worth it to fly all the way around the world for one day, and then fly home. That wouldn’t allow for very much time for interacting with other youth from around the world, catechesis, or mass. For most pilgrims, it’s either a one- or two-week-long extravaganza filled with prayer, faith formation, and swaps.
Oftentimes, parishes in the area where WYD is being held host pilgrims on their grounds. When I was in Australia, we slept in tents on the soccer field of a parish/school community in the Sydney suburbs. This, I think, is wonderful, because it gives the teenagers both time and opportunity to experience what the life of the local community is like, as well as make some new friends. My brother and I spent a great deal of our time practicing our high school Spanish with Spaniards, one of the girls taught some Aussies how to play rummy, and the Cook Islanders were always inviting everyone within earshot to play in their massive game of soccer.
After that first week, we moved into our accommodation in Sydney, and started attending catechesis sessions (i.e., religion classes). These weren’t your run-of-the-mill, stick-the-cotton-ball-on-the-sheep type religion classes. These were extremely enlightening and challenging talks given by some of the Church’s leaders. One of the catechesis sessions I remember most vividly is one that was given by a black South African bishop, who talked about the importance of loving and praying for your enemy. In other words, someone who had lived his whole life on the wrong end of Apartheid explained how and why we should be Christian in a hostile world – a talk that might do well to go on tour in the US right now, I might add.
The week culminates in an all-night vigil, in which the pilgrims have mass with the Pope.
World Youth Day is very powerful, and a profound experience for teenagers around the world. But let’s not kid ourselves – it’s also pretty fun. In addition to catechesis sessions, there are concerts and socials, and the pilgrims are encouraged to bring small tokens of their homelands with them to trade with each other. Host parishes will hold cookouts, the pilgrims will take day trips to different places, and, depending on how daring their leaders are, the pilgrims will sleep in places like school gyms and arenas.
Even though World Youth Day doesn’t receive a lot of attention, it’s important for our young people. Not only does it expose them to different cultures, teach them how to interact with people of different backgrounds, and give them the chance to grow on a personal level, it displays the good that can come from people learning, living, and showing their faith.
This year, the WYD festivities will be held July 25th-31st in the beautiful city of Krakow in Poland! I will be participating as an event volunteer, and a group of teenagers from my home parish will be attending as pilgrims. Please say a prayer for all of us!
If you want to follow along and see what the teens are up to, check out the official WYD 2016 website here!
If you want to see what the pilgrims from your area are up to, simply go out to your archdiocese’s website and look at what hashtags they’ll be using on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
“All young people must feel the care that the Church has for them. Therefore, the whole Church, in union with the successor of Peter, must be more and more engaged at a global level in caring for youth, in responding to their anxieties and concerns and to their receptiveness and hopes. We must try to match their expectations, and we must communicate the certainty that is Christ, the Truth that is Christ, and the love that is Christ. And in this privileged concern, which the Church directs toward them, young people need to find a proof that they matter very much, because they are worth very much. Their life is valuable to the Church.”
– Pope John Paul II