Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

02 August 2013

Vitality, Worship, Mission: A Tale of Three World Youth Days

I've just about had my fill of coverage and commentary on Pope Francis's notorious airplane interview. If I were dedicating the present post to that interview, I would title it "Takes On A Plane." Instead, I offer Timothy Cardinal Dolan's thoughtful and polished reflections for your reading.  As for another voice on the Church's teaching (not connected to the Pope's interview), I offer Deacon Greg Kandra's fine summary via Catholic News Service. That is all.

My World Youth Day (hereafter, WYD) post has to do with the theme of the occasion, which I presume the Holy Father announces sometime beforehand. This year's theme was "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19).  Here is the Vatican's official list of the WYD themes.

I attended two WYDs: Denver (1993) and Cologne (2005). Following are some reflections on the personal relevance of those celebrations.

Denver: I came that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10)

This event lay at the threshold of my senior year of high school. By that point I had already decided to apply to the seminary, so I didn't need the Denver experience to solidify that decision. I later learned that a number of priestly and religious vocations came out of Denver, and that WYD had such an effect on many attendees.

It was one of my first experiences away from home for more than a couple of days, and the farthest I'd ever been away from home. It was also my first experience sleeping out in the open air. (I wasn't a boy scout, as you might have surmised.) But I was in good company--a million or so enthusiastic young people, including several high school classmates and future seminary contemporaries.

I got to know several of our diocesan priests on that trip. I was ready to say that Denver helped to make priests human to me, but that's not true: all the priests I've known were human to me, even as I knew them in my pre-teen and teenage years. Perhaps I put them on a pedestal, but only with the hopes of being able to reach that pedestal someday, not to be able to knock them down from it. One of the priests in our company noticed my fondness for the bean, and we enjoyed it together on a few occasions. He and I don't get together for coffee anymore, but he does come over for dinner and I sometimes preach for his annual Miraculous Medal Novena.

The site of the closing Mass with John Paul II, Cherry Creek State Park, was a hot mess. People were passing out as if slain in the Spirit. During the Mass I volunteered to refill three or four canteens at one of the water sites a good distance away. I really wasn't sure where the spigot was, so I just followed people. Talk about a journey of faith! When I finally arrived, there was quite a queue. An inch at a time, I arrived and started filling. It was awkward enough to carry them there, but now that they were full, it was harder. Partway back to our group, I lost my grip on one of the canteens. The lid wasn't on too tight, and most of the water spilled out. I don't recall whether I swore at the realization of my folly (I was rather pious in those days), but Homer Simpson's "D'Oh!" certainly would have expressed my reaction. Whatever the Holy Father said that day, I'm sure it was worth hearing. It was enough that he was there, and so was I.

John 10:10 remains a favorite quote of mine. As all Scripture does, this verse has grown on me, and grown in me. As one often prone to melancholy, I have appreciated the Lord's assurance of abundant life. Jesus wasn't just expressing a good wish for us, a nice idea. He was stating the purpose for the Incarnation, the reason He became flesh and entered the human scene. Life to the full--not half-life, not occasional glimpses of what joy might resemble.

JPII was an appropriate pope to proclaim that message to the world's youth. Many of us grew up with him. We had no other experience of popecraft than his. This was a vibrant man, an enthusiastic speaker, a lover of children and of the outdoors. I believe he skied the Rockies while he was in town. Perhaps some pundits noticed that, even then, he was starting to slip, but the fact that he preserved his joie de vivre endeared us to him all the more.

When John Paul II replied to the madding crowd, "JPII loves you!"
Cardinal Stafford proceeded to dump a Gatorade container on him.
Cologne: We have come to worship Him (Mt 2:2)

By early 2005 I was slated to be the associate chaplain of the local WYD contingent. Then, in April, JPII "went to the Father's house"--the desire he expressed not long before his death, the desire that pretty much characterized his life.

Then Benedict XVI was elected to occupy the Chair of Peter. Some of our kids began to wonder whether this older, apparently more serious pontiff was going to attend WYD in Cologne. While I had little doubt that he would attend, I wondered how well he would take to the festivities and to the youth. How well would he be received?

There was nothing to worry about. He shared the joy of his beloved predecessor and friend, and it seemed that he felt no need to become JPII's carbon copy in this or any other respect. That interior freedom, born of prayer, attested to the Holy Spirit's presence in Papa Bene. Both the young pilgrims and the adults recognized it.

Our coordinator and crew planned a week's stay in Rome immediately prior to the WYD events. We stayed at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Divine Zeal, who were very gracious to us, especially because several of their own, then stationed in Reading, were part of our group. It was a joy to traverse the Tiber again, and to celebrate Holy Mass on ancient altars.

As well as things could have been planned, it's part and parcel of a pilgrimage that things will go "wrong." At the end of a day trip to Assisi, we discovered that the train operators had decided to strike that day. We had to rent a tour bus to get us back to Rome. This and other unexpected inconveniences had a strange way of bringing us together, although it didn't feel like it at the time.

Many banners were strewn along the way of the grand pilgrimage to the papal site. They featured quotes from Scripture, saints, and other sources. I can't remember a single one, although a few of them came from St. Edith Stein, whose first home as a Carmelite nun was Cologne. Those quotes fueled some interest in this holy and learned woman.

I concelebrated the papal Mass at Marienfeld with thousands of brother priests. We had to suit up in alb and stole, and line up for registration. While in line, I happened to run into a priest whose parents lived at a former parish. He would join us for daily Masses on visits home, and now I rejoined him halfway across the world!

The theme of Cologne pointed to the Magi, whose relics remain enthroned in the city's cathedral. Likewise we pilgrims shared their words and their story, as we came from various places with one aim: to know the Lord more deeply. Along the way, we made new friends and deepened current friendships. That's what happens on pilgrimages. Pope Benedict once said that WYD is the culmination of a "long exterior and interior path" (Wikipedia). As we made the interior journey we discovered the Lord's love that we could in turn share with those around us.

Liturgy is always the Church's pilgrimage of faith, hope, and charity. As a reformer of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict wanted to imbue Catholics with a profound reverence for...reverence. It must become the reason for our existence, far surpassing any previous earthly interest. Just as Jesus made clear His joyful purpose in the WYD theme of Denver, we responded with similar clarity in Cologne. Jesus came to give life to the full; we have come to worship Him.

"I always wanted to teach, but, hey, this is great too!"
Rio de Janeiro: "Go and make disciples of all nations!" (Mt 28:19)

I did not attend this year's WYD, but now with the modern media I could have seen almost every major event, or read each locution. I was not very diligent, I must admit. My sound-byte attention span doesn't help. But I read many headlines and news summaries. And let's face it: people are going to go crazy just because the Pope is in town, regardless of his personality.

Many people have heard of the young boy who expressed his desire to become a priest. This account will be one of the most memorable moments in WYD. Since the first weeks of his papacy, our gregarious Pope Francis has been eager to stop and greet people. That unforgettable encounter has planted in the heart of the world a reminder to pray for and encourage vocations.

Aside from the aforementioned embrace, the most noted news item was the airplane interview. The pope demonstrated mercy upon persons struggling with same-sex attraction. "Hate the sin, love the sinner." In a way, he thus epitomized the WYD theme of making disciples. Charity and truth make disciples of every truly open-minded individual.

Now it's not "the world" that needs to remain open-minded; it's Catholics! To date, the Bishop of Rome seems to have ruffled more traditional feathers than progressive ones. But we must remember that Francis has been reinforcing the Church's teachings all along. Most people suspect that he won't be making many innovations, but what for, anyhow? The needed "innovation" is not teachings; to an extent it may be presentation, but without question it will be people--disciples. 

The Church's centrifugal force into the 21st century must begin with a centripetal movement, an  inward movement of mercy. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict knew this, and they initiated that movement as far as they could. Now it must go into high gear.  Pope Francis is the right man for the job; at least the Holy Spirit has thought so.

"We'll check where you're at with this after the perfumes hit you."

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