Whatever you do, don't ask me about my "holiday"—at least not if you mean the trip to World Youth Day!
Almost every day in Spain we reminded each other we were on a pilgrimage, not a vacation. Not that we needed a whole lot of reminding—various inconveniences and a constant diet of salami sandwiches were more than enough.
And, of course, sleeping outside with more than a million people was a pilgrimage experience like none other; it could not be confused with a camping holiday, that's for sure—not that you'd ever catch me on a camping holiday anyway.
The spiritual purpose of our trip was obvious at the gatherings for prayer and catechesis that shaped each day of the WYD program and of the Days in the Diocese we spent in Valencia beforehand. In addition to Pope Benedict, our group listened to talks by Cardinal Pell of Sydney, Archbishop Dolan of New York and our own Archbishop Miller.
We also had many opportunities for Eucharistic adoration, and major public events like the Stations of the Cross.
More than once, though, I asked myself "is this really a good idea?" The crowds were so large, and the logistics so daunting, that I did find myself wondering whether it was all worth it, for me as a non-youth, and even for the young parishioners who formed our group.
Happily, I got an answer to my question—in fact, more than one answer.
The first came from Pope Benedict himself. He is well aware that there are some people who ask whether World Youth Day isn't just a kind of rock festival, a churchy Woodstock with the Pope as its main attraction. In an address after WYD in Australia, he admitted that even some Catholic critics say these massive gatherings would be basically the same, with or without faith, that in the end they really don't change anything or have any real effect on life.
Having acknowledged these charges, the Pope proceeded to take them apart. I won't go into detail, but he said that the criticisms don't account for the specific character of the joy seen at World Youth Days, or for their power to build communion. He noted that that they aren't merely events, but journeys that start long before WYD itself begins and continue long after it ends.
Pope Benedict said that at World Youth Days, "friendships are formed which encourage a different way of life and which give it deep support. The purpose of these great Days is, not least, to inspire such friendships and so to create places of living faith in the world, places which are, at the same time, settings of hope and practical charity."
Not a bad answer to the doubts that arose in my mind from time to time. But not the only answer—the youth themselves, both our own small group of committed pilgrims and the thousands who I only passed in the streets, were living proof of the value of the sacrifices made by young people, their families, and generous supporters like the parishioners of Christ the Redeemer.
Good humour despite massive crowds and soaring temperatures, readiness to accept disappointments, and politeness in the face of angry protestors were all a sort of living Gospel to be read on the streets of Madrid.
The silence that fell on the million plus young people adoring the Eucharist at the prayer vigil with the Pope, and the expressions of prayer I saw on their faces at Mass were more than enough to make up for the occasional person who didn't seem to know why he was at Madrid—those were answers to my question as well.
Something did happen at Madrid, and I am still trying to understand it. For one thing, I was reminded of the idealism and the charity of youth—something I and our parish community must both imitate and encourage.
I saw early signs of the renewal of religious life. Young Sisters, Brothers and priests were everywhere, and to my amazement there were a number of Canadians and even Vancouverites among them.
The importance of Eucharistic adoration for the renewal of the Church, and its power to keep youth connected to the Mass, was also impressed on me; I have a growing sense that young people who are led to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament will be young people who resist the pressure to stop attending Mass. I am not sure exactly how, but I think the parish needs to think about ways to respond to this insight.
In his homily at Cuatro Vientos airfield, the Pope spoke with his usual gentleness. But what he said was as rousing and challenging as anything you ever heard from Fulton Sheen or Billy Graham. It was a call to a personal relationship with Christ, within His Church, and a call to share the joys of that friendship with others.
"Dear young people," Pope Benedict said, "today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: 'Who do you say that I am?' Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own. Say to him: 'Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me'."
"Dear young friends," he continued, "… let me urge you to strengthen this faith which has been handed down to us from the time of the Apostles. Make Christ, the Son of God, the centre of your life. But let me also remind you that following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the communion of the Church. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. ...
"I ask you, dear friends, to love the Church which brought you to birth in the faith, which helped you to grow in the knowledge of Christ and which led you to discover the beauty of his love. Growing in friendship with Christ necessarily means recognizing the importance of joyful participation in the life of your parishes, communities and movements, as well as the celebration of Sunday Mass, frequent reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and the cultivation of personal prayer and meditation on God's word."
Friendship with Jesus will also lead you to bear witness to the faith wherever you are, even when it meets with rejection or indifference. We cannot encounter Christ and not want to make him known to others. So do not keep Christ to yourselves! Share with others the joy of your faith. The world needs the witness of your faith, it surely needs God. I think that the presence here of so many young people, coming from all over the world, is a wonderful proof of the fruitfulness of Christ's command to the Church: 'Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation' (Mk 16:15)."
The Pope's words were addressed to the young people at Madrid, and around the world, but they are the basic program for each and every Catholic: to make Christ, the Son of God, the centre of our lives; to walk at his side in the fellowship of the Church; to love the Church that brought us to birth in the faith; and to share with others the joy of that faith.
As a parish, we pray that each of our young pilgrims will live deeply and fully this awesome challenge; but you can be sure that our young pilgrims pray the same for each of you.