WYD 2013: See First-Hand Why World Youth Day Matters and Its Impact on our Future Catholic Leaders...
Exclusive to the Catholic Business Journal. If there is one thing that everyone could agree about concerning the modern youth, it is their need for the extreme, and hunger to live life to the full! From the blossoming of extreme sports of all kinds, to TV shows, diets, and exotic destinations, the youth of today in many ways are on a continual quest to escape complacency or what is the status quo. While much can be said about the substantial difficulties facing our young people, I cannot think of a better mindset for receiving and embracing the Good News of Jesus Christ. The proof of this can be seen in the true explosion of the World Youth Day gatherings initiated by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1986.
I had the joy of leading a group of 24 college students mostly from Seton Hall University to the recent World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. It was originally at the invitation of Pope Benedict 16 Emeritus, but of course, we were welcomed by Pope Francis!
I was initially surprised at how many culturally diverse students (of very different faith levels) wanted to go on a trip which they knew would be full of little sleep (and much of that on the floor); simple food; intense service to the poorest of the poor with the Missionaries of Charity; a substantial language barrier; and an intense life of prayer and formation in the our faith. Everyone wanted to experience God in a new way, (or for the first time). Of course the prospect of being with three million other youth from all over the world and the pope on Copacabana Beach didn’t hurt either!
Our trip had three dimensions: Service, Formation, and Pope.
I was overjoyed to see how quickly the students entered into the rhythm of saying Morning and Evening Prayer and participating in daily Mass. There was also a very special bond we formed with the simple and divinely joyful Missionaries of Charity Sisters who we were helping in the favelas of Rio.
Morning and afternoon we went into the slums to paint houses which were really only small rooms with large families living in each. Every one of us wished we could have spent more time there. And as Providence would have it, this was the same slum (Varginha) that Pope Francis would visit a week and a half later.
To our joy, the sisters invited us back to be with them and welcome the pope among them. Of the 3.5 million young people overflowing the streets of the city waiting for a chance to catch a possible glimpse of the pope driving by, our group was with a few hundred poor people on a small soccerfield, in a notorious slum, welcoming him with those who we had been serving!
As we anticipated Pope Francis walking onto the little stage before us, the excitement completely energized every minute of the five hours waiting in the rain prior to his arrival!
Finally arriving, Pope Francis was visibly moved by our joyful shouts and cries, elating us by informing us that “you made me feel welcome!” He spoke simply, joyfully and hopefully, continually showing his pastor's heart. He encouraged us, reminding us of how much we are truly capable of. (Click here to see full photo of our group—all enormous smiles—just after this visit)
In the days that followed, we and the whole city were caught up in numerous events with the Pope Francis. Among the highlights, as at every World Youth Day, there was a prayer vigil where more than three million youth spent time with the pope adoring Jesus in the Eucharist in total SILENCE! There was also a Mass on Copacabana Beach with the Papa Francisco as the main celebrant. Yet the morning encountering Pope Francis in such a simple way in the slum of Varginha was by far the most emotional of the trip.
Pope Francis understands the thirst of our youth for an Absolute, helping them find a Name for what it is that they are searching for; giving them a direction for their journey beyond normalcy. This World Youth Day (as they all are) was an experience of the Church. A young Church who is excited, and ready to take up the challenge given to them by Jesus in the gospel: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
May Pope Francis’ words from his visit to the slum of Varghina speak to all of us, both young and young at heart: “To you (young people) and to all, I repeat: never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good, do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it with good. The Church is with you, bringing you the precious good of faith, bringing Jesus Christ, who “came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).