The Pope is on Instagram, and the world is flat. Flatter far than it was back in the 1980s when Pope St. John Paul II first conceived of an international gathering of Catholic youth to come together to meet Christ, along with the Holy Father, for a powerful encounter of truly catholic communion with one another and with the Church.
Spain, Germany, America, Australia…there have been 13 international world youth days to date, and the crowds – multitudes, as John Paul the Great preferred to call them – keep growing.
But why does it matter in 2016? Can’t the average high school junior with a smartphone pull up the Pope’s Twitter feed and see what’s on his mind? Hasn’t Snapchat made the ability to physically gather in person an obsolete relic of the past?
Not so fast.
There is something almost incommunicable about the catholicity of Catholicism if you’ve never experienced the Faith outside of your own culture. And there is something critically important about having a personal encounter with the Faith. Something that no amount of virtual connectivity can ever hope to replicate.
I remember the first time I heard Mass in another language. I was young – too young to remember the specifics – but it was in a California Mission church, and the Mass was in Spanish. While the unfamiliar words washed over me I remember the little jolt of familiarity and joy when the consecration still happened after the Our Father, when hands reached across pews to shake and to hug during the Sign of Peace.
Several years older and several thousand miles away, I heard the Mass in Latin for the first time, in a grand medieval cathedral in Ireland, and I experienced once again that joyful recognition of sameness in the liturgy.
I’ve heard other people’s stories about their own “aha, we’re huge” moments: Steubenville conferences, international trips, pilgrimages to Rome. Walking through the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time, completely overwhelmed by the sheer size of it, and secondarily by the sights and sounds of a hundred other cultures funneling into one grand sanctuary.
And the big one, for young people, is World Youth Day. There is an unspeakable power to seeing the Holy Father in the flesh, the charism of the papacy made incarnate in a joyful overwhelm of familiarity and relationship. He really is our father. And the grace of office is palpable.
Our young people need to be transformed by an encounter with the living Christ. In the worlds of my favorite saint,
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
This is a living faith. A faith worth fighting for. A faith worth committing to and sacrificing out of love for, in spite of the demands and denials of the world.
And the millennial generation were a source of great hope for JPII. He didn’t see slackers and gamers, a generation destined to live in basements and occupy parental couches. He saw hope. He saw the future of the Church. He saw world-changers and hope-bringers. And above and before all that, he saw future saints.
St. John Paul II could never have imagined how the world would flatten and transform in the 31 years since he first called together 300,000 youthful pilgrims in Rome, but surely he will be watching from his heavenly vantage point as his beloved Poland hosts more than a million young Catholics from around the globe, spilling into the very streets he walked, come to encounter the person of Jesus Christ and His present day vicar on earth, Pope Francis.
So in the lead up to WYD, we pray for protection and for a profound outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these young pilgrims. St. John Paul II, pray for us. Pray for the youth from the nations around this weary world who have been called to Poland, answering a pilgrim’s invitation to experience the universal church in a literal, tangible way. Pray that they would find Jesus whom they seek, who alone can satisfy.”