World Youth Day ended one month ago, and for me, it feels as though I am just now beginning to process this life changing experience. In my years in ministry, I have been able to participate in numerous youth conferences and camps, but none of them compare to the beauty that I encountered in Krakow, Poland in July. I will try my best to capture into words the impact of World Youth Day and why it was so meaningful for me as someone attending for the first time.
In the Catholic faith we talk about the four marks of the Church: one, holy, Catholic, apostolic. These are the pillars on which our church is built. Reflecting on World Youth Day I came to realize that there are four marks that make World Youth Day unique from all other experiences in our church. I define these marks as: universal, apostolic, joyous, and hope-filled.
Saying that something is “Catholic” and “Universal” may sound redundant, however, World Youth Day is one of the most unique experiences in which you are able to witness this universality of the church. Almost the entire universal Church is represented in one place at one time. 1.6 million Catholics from 180 different countries in one place is unfathomable until you see it for yourself.
You can literally see and hear the universal church. Young people come to WYD ready to represent their country. They represent their countries in every way possible; their shirts, their hats, their chants (“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”) and most especially their flags (the American flag was a hot commodity by the way).
For me, one of the most moving experiences was at the opening Mass after communion. The hymn being sung was “Jesus Christ, you are my life.” I looked around and everyone was singing and waving their countries’ flags and the sun had just broken through the clouds. My ministry for many years has been encouraging young people to be disciples of Jesus and as I looked around, I saw over a million of them proud of their faith and proud of their heritage. In that moment, tears came to my eyes at the beauty of my Catholic Church.
Apostolic is another word key word of our Catholic faith. It means that there is an unbroken line from the first apostles to the bishops today. This unbroken line is the guarantor of the authentic teachings of the Catholic Church. World Youth Day is apostolic not just in the fact that the most bishops are gathered in one place outside of a synod or council in Rome, but in the fact that they serve as our catechists for the week.
We were blessed to have Bishop Caggiano traveling with us and so we were able to have him as our catechist on many occasions. Throughout the week, we were also able to listen to homilies and talks from various other bishops, including Archbishop Wenski of Miami, Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines, and most especially four talks from the chief catechist himself, Pope Francis.
I was blessed to be able to emcee at different catechesis sessions with bishops. It was great to see young people from all over the world listening to and then dialoging with our bishops. For many young people it may have been the first time this has happened outside of a confirmation homily. In one session I was leading, a young man from Nigeria witnessed to Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville the struggles he was facing in his country and asked him how he should bring the faith to others.
The bishops’ homilies and talks were jammed packed with authentic Catholic teaching and pastoral application of these teachings. The same could be said for Pope Francis. He spoke four days in a row and each day it felt like he really understood young people. He spoke our language, he used the terms “text message” and “couch potato.” He understood our struggles. He encouraged us but most importantly he challenged us.
“Jesus is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease. Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. To blaze trails that open up new horizons capable of spreading joy, the joy that is born of God’s love and wells up in your hearts with every act of mercy (Pope Francis, World Youth Day Vigil, July 30, 2016).”
Anytime you have a large gathering of Catholic young people you experience inevitable joy, but this joy is enhanced during World Youth Day. For a whole week you could not take a few steps without encountering another group from one of the 180 countries either praying, singing or chanting. Another memorable moment is what I call the World Youth Day “photobomb.” Anytime you stopped to take a group picture, you could expect at least another 15-20 people from all over rushing to get into your picture. It was simply amazing. The level of joy of everyone present was truly astounding.
When you add together everything I have just mentioned there is only one word to describe how it made me feel: hope-filled. When you see 1.6 million Catholic young people celebrating their faith joyously, learning about their faith, praying together, and supporting one another it gives me hope. Hope for the future of our Church and for the future of our world. If these young people continue to carry their zealous spirit from World Youth Day back to their homes they will continue to shape our world.
I pray that all of us who had this amazing experience in Krakow, Poland will continue to live out our faith courageously in our homes as we continue to pray and seek peace and unity.