The Pope has gone to Rio de Janeiro today to celebrate World Youth Day - his first as pope, the first WYD in a Portuguese-speaking country, the Pope's first overseas trip since his election.
Since Blessed Pope John Paul II started World Youth Day in 1984, World Youth Day celebrations have taken place in Argentina, Spain (Santiago de Compostela), Poland, the US (Denver), The Philippines, France, Rome, Italy, Toronto, Canada, Germany, Australia, Spain (Madrid), and finally this year in Brazil.The theme for this year’s World Youth Day, fitting for this year of Faith in this era of “New Evangelization” is Go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). The World Youth Day 2013 theme summons not just the young people of Brazil and those participating in World Youth Day but all faithful of all ages to respond to the Gospel’s call to mission, to live for all the world to see as faithful witnesses of the Risen Christ, who has promised to be with his Church and accompany us until the end of time.
I myself had the happy experience of attending the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, with a group from our Paulist parish in New York. That was Pope Benedict's first WYD as pope, having inherited the already planned Cologne event from John Paul II as Pope Francis has in turn inherited the already planned Rio event from Benedict. For me, WYD Cologne 2005 was an exhausting experience, to be sure. It is, after all, a religious jamboree geared for younger people. But it was and remains a most memorable experience for me - and not just for its physical challenges.
World Youth Day is a celebration of faith and an embodiment of the universality of the Catholic Church. One of its major elements is the catechetical sessions conducted daily in particular languages. In Cologne in 2005 our group attended two such sessions – one in a large stadium in Leverkusen, another in a parish church in Dusseldorf. (I was in the confessional for most of the second session. So I missed most of what was said.) For all participants, the third catechesis took the form of a pilgrimage walk along the bank of the Rhine River to the great Cathedral of Cologne with its famous shrine of the Magi, a vivid reminder of their journey to Bethlehem and a symbol of the personal search for Christ. The Magi’s words, “We have come to worship him,” formed the official theme of the entire World Youth Day event, and throughout the week, the story of the Magi was progressively unfolded. Meanwhile, all week long, everywhere one went, there were the crowds of young people from all over the world, packing the trains, filling the streets, waving flags, and chanting. For the final papal Mass on Sunday morning, a new composition, the Missa Mundi, represented each of the five continents (as Europeans number the continents) in stuyle and instrumentation – a European Kyrie, a South American Gloria, an Asian Credo, an African Sanctus, and an Australian Agnus Dei. For me it was a true pilgrimage, one I am not likely to forget, and I certainly recommend the experience to anyone able to go.
Every World Youth Day is intended to energize the Church’s inner life and its mission outward to the world. For some it may inspire them to embrace a specific vocation in the Church. (At least one priest I know traces his vocation to his experience of World Youth Day 1993 in Denver). May this year’s World Youth Day experience in Rio encourage many people of all ages to become committed disciples and enthusiastic missionaries of the Gospel whatever their daily work and state in life!