Guest Columnist Why World Youth Day matters

World Youth Day is a mighty experience, not just for those who came home in late August to tell us their stories, but for the whole Church. It gives us hope, and for good reason.

No secular event can draw as many teens as a World Youth Day. Often for a host nation, World Youth Day is one of the largest, if not the largest gathering in that nation’s history. No great battle, march or rock concert comes close to the magnitude of that massive gathering of joyful youths. That sends a loud message to a world that tries so hard to cling to the notion that faith is going out of style with young people.

World Youth Day shows the power of the Gospel to unite people from every corner of the world. Take a half-mile walk at World Youth Day and you’ll make friends with people from almost every continent on earth. While many pilgrimages are journeys to holy places, World Youth Days are journeys to the Catholic Church itself, where one can experience what “catholicity” is firsthand.

World Youth Day gives us a glimpse into the history of the Church. Almost every nation on earth has a presence there—a powerful reminder of the fact that the Church has been forging cultures and serving peoples in almost every corner of humanity for millennia. One teen reflected that “It helps to remind me that no other faith has ever impacted so many people for so long a time despite all of the accusations or whatever bad history might be tied in the history of the Church.”

Perhaps the most powerful message of World Youth Day is that it shows us that Jesus Christ is alive and well and moving in the hearts of young people. One teen described the beauty of World Youth Day in these words: “To know that people from all over the world—not just people but YOUTH, teenagers such as myself—are going to World Youth Day, reminds me how easily God can capture a heart, even a rebellious teenager’s heart. Nothing is impossible for him.” And for many “rebellious hearts,” teens and adults, World Youth Day marks the turning point.

One such rebellious heart had called home from college just a year before World Youth Day with the news, “Mom, I no longer believe in Jesus.” This—after weekly Mass from childhood and 12 years in Catholic school. She had gone the way of countless young people who went to college to party hard on their parent’s dime and seek enlightenment everywhere but in the faith they were raised with. “I only found disillusionment,” she said.

Her mother worked feverishly to secure her a spot with a group going to World Youth Day. She would not take “no” for an answer, and so, her daughter reluctantly attended. The experience left an indelible mark on her soul.

She reflected on her experience of gathering with Catholic youths from every corner of the world and listening to the Pope under the dome of the night sky: “I listened to the Holy Father speak. His words pierced my heart. Despite myself, his words were registering as the Truth! They were like ‘home.’”

That was World Youth Day 1993 in Denver and she married me four years later.

Jesus makes all things new. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he makes all things “young.” Youthfulness has little to do with age, in a spiritual sense. It flows from an encounter with Jesus, “the eternal source of your youth” (Pope Benedict XVI, World Youth Day 2011).

Very near to his death, John Paul II wrote that “The priest is someone who, despite the passing of years, continues to radiate youthfulness, spreading it almost ‘contagiously’ among those he meets along the way” (“Letter to Priests,” 2005). Within his broken body Pope John Paul II was as young as ever. Maybe it was so many World Youth Days that kept him in touch with this youthfulness. He needed young people as much as they needed him. We all do. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI to teens at World Youth Day this August, “The Church needs your youthful fidelity.” (Emphasis added.)

Thank you to the million-plus teens who attended World Youth Day. You remind us that the Church is not growing old until the end of time, but younger with each passing year as we near the eternal source of our youth together. You give us all hope.

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