Monday, July 11, 2016

Countdown to World Youth Day: It All Comes Alive In Krakow

By Robert Brennan of Rockville Center

Long before the official World Youth Day gatherings, on his first visit to the United States in October 1979, Pope John Paul II met with the young people of the area at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Meetings with the youth would become a key part of his Apostolic Journeys. I had the good fortune to be there as part of a delegation from my parish. I can’t say I really knew what to expect but it probably would have been something very solemn and serious. It was quite the opposite. The new Pope lit a spiritual fire and had us all caught up enthusiastically in the celebration of our faith in Christ working though His Church. He spoke to us words such as “The Church needs you. The world needs you because it needs Christ and you belong to Christ.” For a teen, it was exciting to be Catholic – to belong to Christ and His Church. The idea of a vocation toward priesthood was pretty clear in my mind but this was a real turning point in my own vocational journey.

Many years later, in 2002, I attended World Youth Day in Toronto, for the first time travelling as Secretary to Bishop William Murphy, with a very large delegation from Long Island. Because it was relatively close to New York, many young people were able to go and we were able to make it a true pilgrimage with caravans of buses traveling across New York and through Canada to Toronto stopping along the way to pray (for example, at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York) and to connect with other diocesan groups. You see, something good seems to happen during the pilgrimage. Overcoming the challenges of long travel and big crowds, the groups seem to bond very deeply. I’ve seen that time and time again. In the City of Toronto we were able to gather not only our Diocesan Group for Mass and Dinner but all the Long Islanders travelling with schools and other groups. Again, exchanging stories about the adventures, something truly good takes place.

As good as it is to bond with our own group, in every WYD experience, the Long Island groups met the world. Young Catholic’s today sometimes feel isolated trying to live their faith. In every pilgrimage group with whom I have travelled, I hear how it is so important to meet thousands – even millions – of young people sharing the same faith and values. It happens in the large, joyful group settings such as the celebrations on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. It happens walking through the neighborhoods where pilgrims exchange greetings, pins, bracelets, and other tokens. It happens in the catechetical sessions where in small groups pilgrims share faith with fellow pilgrims from around the world and exchange cultural traditions and expressions. And it happens in the individual pilgrimage groups themselves sharing the impact of the events of the day or the week.

I had the chance to participate in Cologne and Madrid. I did not go to Sydney but we had a retreat for those who could not make that long journey and connected via a video link (even before the popularity of Skype) with those who did represent us in Sydney.

Most recently, in 2013, I made my first World Youth Day pilgrimage as a Bishop in Rio. One of the things that impressed me so much in Rio was watching the crowds grow along Copacabana Beach from the hotel rooftop. As in the World Youth Days before, the enthusiasm – the joy of being Catholic – is overwhelming.

Of course, the highlight each and every time is the encounter with the Holy Father. It seems that just about everyone – young person, chaperone, religious, deacon, priest, and bishop – seems to be wide eyed and joyful as the Pope passes close by and as he speaks. I’ve had the chance to welcome John Paul II in my youth and, without realizing it, to bid a fond farewell at what would be his last World Youth Day. I’ve had the chance welcome Benedict XVI and Francis. There is something about these experiences that makes you feel close to the Popes, simply by sharing the WYD experience with them. And I hear it years later from other pilgrims – they have a personal connection with the Pope because they were there with him.

By chance, I happened to be in Krakow as word spread of the city having been chosen as the site for the 2016 World Youth Day. I couldn’t think of a better choice. Our new Saint, John Paul II, gave us the gift of World Youth Day. In Toronto, he spoke of having lived through very dark days under oppressive regimes and yet being convinced that nothing could extinguish the hope that springs from the hearts of the young. It all comes alive in his city – Krakow. I can’t wait to go to Krakow, once again to walk in his steps and to enjoy the gift he bequeathed through World Youth Day.

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