by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The day after the conclusion of World Youth Day, our seminarians and the other pilgrims from our archdiocese traveled to Fatima, Portugal. They flew out of Lisbon to return to the United States on Aug. 23.
Having been gone from the Archdiocese since Aug. 2, I decided to return a day earlier. I flew out of Madrid, Spain, to Charlotte, N.C., where I had a rather lengthy layover. When I arrived in Charlotte, I was looking for a quiet, underpopulated part of the airport. If you read last week’s column, you may notice a pattern developing. I called Joyce, my administrative aide, to attempt to do as much work as possible over the phone to decrease the pile of unanswered correspondence waiting on my desk in Kansas City.
Everything was great for about an hour. However, the section of the airport that I had made my satellite office gradually became noisier and noisier. The commotion around me was making it more difficult to hear Joyce, so I eventually had to concede that we had accomplished as much as we could achieve that day.
Upon ending my call, I discovered that I was surrounded by a group of World Youth Day pilgrims. They were a parish group from Denver. One of the adult leaders for the group introduced herself to me. They were using the time in the airport to debrief the young pilgrims.
As part of their pilgrimage, each of the participants had been asked to research and prepare a brief presentation about the life and ministry of a saint. A few, who had not yet delivered their presentations, were given the opportunity to do so. They had evidently been encouraged to examine especially the lives of Spanish saints.
One young woman gave a report on St. Maria Soledad, who is the foundress of the Sisters, Servants of Mary. I had visited, with our seminarians, the Sisters, Servants’ convent in Madrid, where St. Maria is buried. Mother Alfonsa, the superior general for the Sisters, Servants, had previously lived in Kansas City, Kan., where she served as the provincial for the Province of the United States and Mexico. I told the Denver pilgrims about the Sisters, Servants of Mary in Kansas, describing the beautiful ministry they do in caring for the sick and dying. They were grateful that I was able in some small way to testify to the impact this saint and her community were having in a place not very far from Denver.
Next, the adult leaders invited the young people to share what the World Youth Day experience had meant to them. It was wonderful to hear their testimonies of how God had touched their hearts in beautiful and powerful ways during their pilgrimage. They spoke with great affection about their parish priest, who is Spanish and accompanied them on the pilgrimage. He was not returning to Denver with them, but was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit family and friends in Spain.
I was reminded of a similar session we had with our Kansas pilgrims the night before. The World Youth Day pilgrimage is truly a pilgrimage. The young people are required to make many sacrifices. Through most of the pilgrimage, our Kansas pilgrims slept on the floor of a school gym that was not air-conditioned. They had walked many miles in the scorching summer heat. They had endured a thunderstorm — the only rain we saw the entire time in Spain — the night when they slept outside so as to be in position to participate in the Mass the next day with the Holy Father.
There was much our pilgrims could have chosen to complain about, but instead they spoke about the inspiration they derived from their fellow Kansas pilgrims — from helping the Missionaries of Charity care for the sick and abandoned to the thrill of being with more than one million other young people from every corner of the world who shared the same faith and ideals. They also spoke with great admiration for the priest participants — Father Bill Bruning and Father Mitchel Zimmerman. They loved Pope Benedict and were grateful for the wisdom of his teaching, but even more for the obvious love he manifested toward them and all the World Youth Day participants.
This summer I had read the book, “A Life with Karol: My Forty-Year Friendship with the Man Who Became Pope” by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. The cardinal recalled how many within the leadership of the church opposed World Youth Day when Blessed John Paul II first proposed it. They were afraid that young people would not show up and worried, if some did come, what they would do with them.
Pope John Paul had spent a significant portion of his ministry with college students and other young people. He was convinced that, given the opportunity, young people would respond positively to an invitation to encounter Jesus and to follow him, no matter how difficult and demanding.
Cardinal Dziwisz said this specifically about World Youth Day in Denver in 1993: “All the major newspapers were predicting that the meeting in Denver would be a resounding failure. Even the bishops seemed doubtful, if not actually afraid. Well, what happened is that they were expecting 200,000 young people at most, but 700,000 and maybe even more showed up.
“And you had all these young Americans, these children of modernity and technology, resonating with the pope’s passionate appeal: Don’t be afraid to show yourselves in the streets and public places! He challenged them to be like the first apostles who preached Christ and his message of salvation in the city squares and the villages. It’s not time to be ashamed of the Gospel, but to preach it out loud.”
Cardinal Dziwisz observed: “And the youth began to identify with the spiritual, moral, and human values that the Holy Father was proposing to them. They appreciated his way of dialoguing. He was demanding, but also convincing, because he was motivated by love for them.”
All I could think, as I listened to the testimonies of our Kansas pilgrims and as I listened to the testimonies of the Denver pilgrims, “Thank God for John Paul II!” World Youth Day is an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Who else could gather two million young people from every corner of the earth than the successor of Peter, the vicar of Christ?
How many young people’s lives have been changed and influenced by their participation in World Youth Day? I know several of our younger priests identify an experience at a World Youth Day as a key moment in their vocational discernment.
World Youth Day demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit alive in the church today, despite all the challenges within and outside the church. The Gospel of Jesus remains attractive because it is true and speaks to our deepest longings.
I could not help thinking as the World Youth Day pilgrims shouted often and with great enthusiasm: “Benedicto! Benedicto! Benedicto!” How true was Pope Benedict’s observation after seeing the young people descend on Rome for Pope John Paul II’s funeral: “The church is young!”
Indeed, the church is young!