By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"An Undertaking of Immense Consequence and Promise"

This is how the Holy Father described World Youth Day in his farewell address just prior to his return flight to Rome. This endeavour of enormous import is, precisely, "that of helping young people to become more deeply rooted in Jesus Christ."

And millions of young people are searching for exactly that. It is very difficult to put into words what I have experienced in my encounter with the young gathered in Spain over these past few days. I spoke in my last blog post of the deep questions that, in part, define their search. Well, on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning I was with them as they gave visible expression to their awareness that the ultimate answer to those questions is a person: Jesus Christ. I am speaking of the breathtaking assembly of over a million young people with the Holy Father at Cuatro Vientes in Madrid. The gathering at the vigil was officially estimated at 1.4 million! Those present at the Mass the following morning would have exceeded that number. (The photo above, by Sergio Perez of Reuters, courtesy of CNS, shows just a few of them!)

For me, the most impressive moments were those of silence. Hard to describe to those not present. We are familiar with the images and sounds of so many young people at WYD giving joyful, loud, and exuberant expression of their happiness in the Lord. And that was certainly present in abundance at the vigil and Mass, let me tell you! Even the rain and thunder that interrupted the vigil for a brief time could not dampen (apologies for the pun) the enthusiasm. In fact the more it poured the greater were the cheers and laughter. I am very encouraged by their zeal and resilience, but what has moved me most is their silent reverence before the Lord.

Pope Benedict introduced Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the celebration of the WYD vigil . When the sacred Host was brought forward and placed in the monstrance, all fell perfectly silent. All 1.4 million. And again at the final Mass, following the Pope's homily when those gathered we're invited to meditate upon the Word of God and the teaching of the Holy Father, silence. Perfect silence. The same was true for the post-communion period of thanksgiving. Millions united in one act of openness, listening, adoration, praise and thanksgiving, the profundity of which was expressed in the depth of the silence. Incredible.

It was at these moments that I knew for myself the accuracy of the Pope's words. The consequence and promise of this and all WYD experiences is immeasurable in its scope. When this many young people open their hearts and lives to be more deeply rooted in Jesus Christ, great good will come. And there are millions more of them! Think of the many other WYD events that have occurred over the past 26 years, each of which has drawn young people together in numbers that no other event has done or can do. WYD is very clearly a powerful work of the Holy Spirit that will bear wondrous and plentiful fruit for generations to come.

Now our pilgrims are heading home. To say that they are exhausted would be an understatement. They have endured full days in blistering heat, often sleeping in the most basic of accommodations. Yet their energy and enthusiasm remained, even if it did take a while in the early mornings to get kick-started after only a few hours of sleep. Their perseverance taught me a great deal about their commitment to the Lord and his Church, and I am extremely proud of them.

Next WYD will be Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2013. Can't wait!

La Juventud del Papa

As we formally welcomed Pope Benedict to World Youth Days last night, the cry that kept leaping up from the countless thousands of young people gathered with him at Plaza de Cibeles was: Esta es la juventud del Papa! We are the Pope's youth! There was incredible joy and excitement as the young people saw the Pope, many of them for the first time in their lives. They knew that he was not only their spiritual leader, the head of the Church, but also, in a real way, their father, and the love and joy they felt as they saw him was clear, loud, and contagious. For example, at the end of the ceremony, once they had finished their extraordinarily beautiful music, the huge choir erupted with: Estos son los musicos del Papa! (We are the Pope's musicians). Even one of my brother Bishops got in on the act and started to hollar: Estos son los obispos del Papa (We are the Pope's Bishops!). In other words we all felt deeply our oneness as members of the Catholic family, united around our "papa," the Holy Father, and this was the source of great joy.

The excitement had started earlier in the day. I was at the parish of the Incarnation to give a catechetical teaching, and there the officials arranged for a live broadcast of the Pope's arrival at the airport to be shown on a wall of the Church. When the young people saw the Pope step out of the plane, they went nuts! Cheers and clapping like you haven't heard! They knew that he had come to visit them, to spend time with them, to manifest in this way his love for them and closeness to them, and they received his presence with great and joyful gratitude.

At his opening address at the airport, where he had been greeted by Spain's King and Queen, Pope Benedict gave a beautiful address in which he summed up the reason why our young people are drawn to World Youth Days. I quote a portion of it here:

"Why has this multitude of young people come to Madrid? While they themselves should give the reply, it may be supposed that they wish to hear the word of God, as the motto for this World Youth Day proposed to them, in such a way that, rooted and built upon Christ, they may manifest the strength of their faith.

"Many of them have heard the voice of God, perhaps only as a little whisper, which has led them to search for him more diligently and to share with others the experience of the force which he has in their lives. The discovery of the living God inspires young people and opens their eyes to the challenges of the world in which they live, with its possibilities and limitations. They see the prevailing superficiality, consumerism and hedonism, the widespread banalization of sexuality, the lack of solidarity, the corruption. They know that, without God, it would be hard to confront these challenges and to be truly happy, and thus pouring out their enthusiasm in the attainment of an authentic life. But, with God beside them, they will possess light to walk by and reasons to hope, unrestrained before their highest ideals, which will motivate their generous commitment to build a society where human dignity and true brotherhood are respected. Here on this Day, they have a special opportunity to gather together their aspirations, to share the richness of their cultures and experiences, motivate each other along a journey of faith and life, in which some think they are alone or ignored in their daily existence.

"But they are not alone. Many people of the same age have the same aspirations and, entrusting themselves completely to Christ, know that they really have a future before them and are not afraid of the decisive commitments which fulfil their entire lives. That is why it gives me great joy to listen to them, pray with them and celebrate the Eucharist with them."

We Bishops share that joy. In our catechesis sessions we are privileged to have posed to us the questions with which our youth from all over the world are grappling as they strive to live authentic Christian lives. Over the past three days the questions that have come to me included:

"How do I, as a college student surrounded by friends and peers who do not believe, find necessary support on a daily basis to live faithfully as a Christian?" or

"In my attempt to discern God's call, how do I distinguish the voice of the Lord from what are simply my own desires?"

There were also many questions that demonstrated their deep desire to know Jesus more deeply, such as:

"Why the Cross? Could not God have saved us some other way?"

"How do I open my life so that I may see myself as Jesus sees me and thus know how I am called to change and grow?"

The enthusiasm that is so present among the young people is not superficial, transient emotion. It is real joy, rooted in Christ and in the lived experience of being a part of the family that is the Church, united with and under our Holy Father. Please continue to pray for us as we step into the final days of this magnificent encounter.

(Pictured above are some of our group at the train station.)