by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
A major highlight of summer 2023 was the World Youth Day pilgrimage. Almost 100 pilgrims from the archdiocese joined with 1.5 million Catholics from more than 180 countries in Lisbon, Portugal. The Aug. 25 edition of The Leaven masterfully captured through photography and written text the experience of our Kansas pilgrims.
I am grateful that the late Pope St. John Paul II conceived the idea of World Youth Day and, despite concerns as well as criticism from some of his advisers, had the courage to move forward with this bold initiative to engage young Catholics. Some feared that inviting thousands of young adults from different cultures who spoke different languages was a recipe for a riot.
Pope John Paul, as a college professor and university chaplain, had ministered to young adults throughout his priesthood. St. John Paul was convinced — if he invited them to open their hearts to Jesus, challenged them to strive for heroism and encouraged them to live virtuous lives, young people would respond with joyful enthusiasm.
World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon was the 17th such international gathering of Catholic youth, the first being held at the Vatican in 1984. I have only been to two previous World Youth Days — Madrid in 2011, and Krakow, Poland, in 2016.
Thirty thousand World Youth Day pilgrims came from the United States. On Aug. 2, the Knights of Columbus sponsored a gathering in a large park for the U.S. attendees. The U.S. ambassador to Portugal, Ms. Randi Carno Levine, attended the event and addressed the young Americans.
Per chance, the ambassador sat next to me. She and her staff were amazed at the number and the enthusiasm of the World Youth Day pilgrims. I am not certain if any of our Kansas pilgrims remember anything from Ambassador Levine’s talk, but I sensed that the faith, joy and goodness of these young Americans made a lasting impression on the ambassador and her staff.
Some of the best Catholic musicians and vocalists led the pilgrims in praise and worship music. After an hour of witness talks and inspirational music, the Blessed Sacrament was processed through the crowd. The young pilgrims, with great devotion, dropped to their knees. The reverent silence of the young people was powerful.
Bishop Robert Barron gave a moving homily during eucharistic adoration. He challenged the pilgrims not to be afraid to live their faith boldly. Bishop Barron observed how American society is very risk averse and preoccupied with safety. Not suggesting that they engage in reckless or imprudent behavior, Bishop Barron challenged the young people not to be afraid to take risks in living and sharing their faith. One of his key take-away messages was to counsel young people, that when the symbol of what we believe is a man nailed to a cross, safety is obviously not our highest priority!
At the Saturday night vigil service as well as in his Sunday Mass homily, Pope Francis exhorted the pilgrims to be not afraid to follow Jesus and to bring his love to others. He challenged the young people as well as elders like me not to yield to discouragement when we fail and fall in following Jesus, but rather to get up and resume our journey as disciples of the One who revealed the depth of God’s love and mercy on Calvary.
Two weeks ago at Sunday Mass, from Matthew’s Gospel we read about Jesus questioning his disciples regarding what others were saying about him. Eventually, Jesus posed the much more important question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter replied for the apostles: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus commended Peter for his answer, noting that it was not the fruit of human calculation but had been revealed to him by God the Father. Jesus authorized Peter, despite all his weaknesses and vulnerabilities, to lead his church! Our Lord identified Peter as the rock upon which Jesus would build the church. Our Lord even entrusted to Peter the keys of the kingdom — obvious symbols of authority.
This past Sunday, we read the sequel to this passage. Attempting to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead, Our Lord declared that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer greatly and be killed. Peter rebuked Jesus for his dispiriting talk about suffering and death. Our Lord equated Peter with Satan, the tempter, pointing out that Peter is being led in his thinking with the wisdom of the world, not the wisdom of God.
These passages from Matthew’s Gospel are foundational for our Catholic faith. Peter and his successors, the popes — the bishops of Rome — have a critical role in the church. Peter was chosen, not because he was the best and the brightest. Peter was selected because, despite all of his weaknesses and other faults, he perceived Our Lord’s true identity.
What other world figure could bring together 1.5 million young people from literally every nation on the earth? Pope Francis was able to convene such an immense and diverse crowd because more than 1 billion Catholics from every continent in the world look to the pope as the successor of Peter. The pope is a symbol of our unity as Catholics. We all look to the pope as a spiritual father.
As this past Sunday’s Gospel illustrated, our reverence and respect for the pope does not mean he is immune from all error. Jesus had to rebuke Peter right after entrusting the keys of the kingdom to him, because he was making judgments based on flawed human wisdom, not God’s wisdom. Historically, some popes have been morally flawed and made some horrendous mistakes. Despite their personal weaknesses, the Holy Spirit has prevented them from leading the church into fundamental moral or doctrinal error.
Jesus did not give the church a complex and detailed organizational chart. Nor did Jesus pass out to his disciples copies of the New Testament. Instead, Our Lord gave to the church the apostles, with Peter as their leader. It was to this group that Jesus entrusted the authority of guiding and shepherding the church.
If the church does not have a pope, the successor of Peter, then everyone becomes their own pope! This is exactly what has happened in Protestantism. The Protestant principle is to divide if you disagree. This has led to the fracturing of Christianity into thousands of sects and denominations.
World Youth Day is a beautiful expression and fruit of our Catholic faith. World Youth Day reminded me once again, despite all our struggles, of the great blessing of our Catholic faith. It is great to be Catholic.