Faith Comes Alive in Rio

It’s World Youth Day, (WYD) and here I am, with hundreds of brother bishops, thousands of priests, deacons, and consecrated religious women and men, tens of thousands of devoted youth ministers, and…over a million young people from all over the planet…oh, and how could I forget, with Pope Francis, too!

I try my best not to miss them. Let’s see, I’ve been to World Youth Days, since they were initiated by Blessed (soon to be Saint!) John Paul II three decades ago, in Denver, Rome, Toronto, Cologne, Madrid, and, now, Rio. I’m only batting .500, because there are some veterans who have made them all.

Where WYD takes place is significant. The South American young people are rightly proud that this one takes place here, and the Brazilians are really enthusiastic that they, the world’s largest Catholic population, are hosting this one.

But, more important than where is who? Who is here?

Well, that’s easy: over a million young people (from 18-30, in general) are here! Every continent is represented, and confessions are heard in 52 languages. These young folks have sacrificed and prepared to get here. Our own hundred or so from the Archdiocese of New York began saving money, raising funds, praying, and planning a year ago. Just to be with them is a boost.

Priests, sisters, brothers, teachers, youth ministers, and lay leaders are here, too, and they share in my love for our sparkling young Catholics. They, too, have prepared and sacrificed to be here. It’s a lot of travel, walking, waiting, and effort, but it’s sure worth it.

Of course, Pope Francis is here. This is not only his first WYD as our Holy Father, but his first journey outside of Italy since the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel. We know he’s here in Brazil, but we won’t get our first glimpse of him until later today, as he rides through Rio to see us all. The old chant among Christians is, Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia! “Where Peter is, there is the Church!” and that’s sure the exuberant sentiment here as we await the Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Francis.

Most important of all, Jesus is here! Sure He is! He gave us His assurance that, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, I’ll be there in the midst of them!” How about two or three million?

Jesus is here, as our youth meet Him in the Holy Eucharist, receive His mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, share stories about meeting Him in their works of service to the poor, sick, and struggling, and hear new friends speak humbly and movingly about their faith in Him and friendship with Him.

We bishops have the joy and honor of gathering with our “groups”—a couple hundred young people, of the same language, who come together at one of the thousands of locations on the mornings of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—there to pray, sing, and listen to them; there to celebrate Mass with them; there to make available the sacrament of penance with dozens of priests; and there to offer an hour-long catechesis on the triple WYD themes: discipleship, hope, and mission.

For me, these “groups" are key, as our young people meet other believers from corners of the world, and sense a bond more potent than any division caused by where we live, what race we belong to, what language we speak. They begin with the group they came with; they expand to the hundreds they encounter in these catechetical sessions; then they sense “the Church” as millions join Pope Francis at Saturday evening’s vigil and Sunday morning’s Mass. It works!

Finally, why do they come? On a purely natural level, it’s fun to travel and meet new people, sure. But, on a supernatural level, our participants tell you they need the company, the friendship, the support of one another. Often, they will observe, they feel they may be the only ones around who believe, who pray, who struggle, who try to follow Jesus and God’s Word. Not on WYD! Here they sense the Church, that they are Catholic, that Jesus is with them, that they are not alone, that they are part of something bigger.

I’m honored to be part of this. I even feel a bit younger!