It Began With an Invitation

They said it couldn’t be done…

When now Blessed Pope John Paul II floated the project a quarter-century ago, his closest advisers cautioned him against it.

What the ever-dreaming pontiff had proposed was a World Youth Day. “Let’s invite young people from all over the world. I’ll be there with them! We’ll pray, sing, share stories of faith. We’ll have Mass, confessions, Eucharistic adoration. Our youth can meet others who share their faith from all over the Church universal! Let’s do it!”

“But Holy Father,” his leery aides countered, “they won’t come. If they do, they’ll protest. It would be embarrassing! Haven’t you heard? The youth are ‘turned-off’ to the Church! They reject Church teaching! Don’t risk it, Your Holiness!”

The pope who had made his motto, “Be not afraid!” was not to be put off…

…and the rest is history. World Youth Days, happening every two-three years, have become immensely successful. 

I can attest to that. Just got back Monday from Madrid, the fifth World Youth Day I’ve been to. I feel as if I’ve got a million-and-a-half new friends from all over the world.

That’s how many young people packed the magnificent, sun-baked capital of Spain. To a person, these Catholic youth were beaming with joy, radiating exuberance, proud to be followers of Jesus, members of His Church.

“We’ve been dreading this,” confessed a resident of Madrid next to me at a coffee counter. Between his imperfect English and my lousy Spanish, we had a decent chat.

“We’ve been worried these young people would be noisy, disruptive, obnoxious. But, they’ve won me over with their happiness, their courtesy, their faith.”

There they were, hundreds, standing in line for confession, or thousands in silence on their knees before the Holy Eucharist, or at presentations on the situation in Haiti, or how to volunteer in a struggling country.

There they were, excited to cheer Pope Benedict as he passed by, listening at the Stations of the Cross, joining others in song and dance.

There they were, at a “catechetical session” each day, listening to a bishop like myself do his best to speak to them on Jesus, faith, evangelization.

There they were, nearly 400 from our archdiocese, accompanied by devoted priests, sisters, brothers, and generous youth ministers. They made me so proud.

Yes, the heat was at times a microwave; yes, the lines long; yes, the catechetical sites so jammed at times there was no room; yes, the big event—the vigil on Saturday, and the

Mass Sunday morning—so crowded (over 1.5 million) that some were not let into their assigned section.

The only complaint I heard? “Boy, I sure was sad I couldn’t receive Holy Communion at Sunday Mass.” Too many were there… not a bad thing to regret.

The historians tell us that Blessed John Paul II took another dare: not only did he “cast out to the deep” in even deciding to launch World Youth Day, but he also utilized a pastoral strategy that was natural to him: he would not pander to young people. No, he would summon them to heroic virtue, to noble lives, to sanctity. He chose to be a prophet, not a panderer…

…and, the more he reminded them of their dignity, their Catholic identity, their intimate closeness to Jesus, their responsibilities to live the authentic freedom of “doing what we ought, not whatever we want,” the louder they cheered.

And Pope Benedict XVI does the same. How an 84-year-old man, shy, cerebral, timid, can move these youth to tears, turn their lives around, call them to greatness, is a tribute to the mighty power of God’s grace and mercy.

For as the Holy Father told them, “This World Youth Day is not about me, it’s all about Jesus. You think you came to World Youth Day to see me? No! I came to see you, my dear young friends! We all came to see Jesus!”

As I confessed to my wonderful young people who packed my catechetical sessions—from Australia, Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada, Africa, Dubai, Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand—“I’m supposed to catechize you! Your exuberance, your interest, your sincerity, your joy, your faith is teaching me!”