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Reflections from World Youth Day

Monsignor Francis Cilia, left, and Bishop Patrick J. McGrath join Diocese of Santa Rosa Vicar General Monsignor Daniel Whelton at an event during World Youth Day 2016 in Poland. Bishop McGrath and Monsignor Whelton were classmates in the seminary in Ireland.

By Monsignor Francis Cilia

During his press conference on the flight home to Rome from World Youth Day in Kraków, Pope Francis jokingly remarked that Poland just had been invaded, “but this time by youth.”

Youth from every corner of the Catholic world descended upon a city that seems to have sprung up in the middle of a lush forest. While California sports golden hills and brown lawns, Kraków is a welcoming landscape populated by warm and generous people who were more than equal to the challenge of hosting millions of pilgrims.

This short-lived invasion by more than two million young people was, in many ways, the Church’s response to acts of terrorism and violence, which have captured headlines around the world. Gathered with their bishops and the Bishop of Rome, the assembled youth committed themselves to mercy, love, reconciliation and peace. Challenged by one speaker to remember her beloved Aleppo and by another to open themselves to the healing love of God, the all-night vigil on Saturday prepared all participants to rejoice with Zacchaeus, for, at Jesus’ invitation, the tax collector overcame his smallness of stature, a paralysis of shame and the grumbling of the crowds that can so often affect each person. Experiencing the loving embrace and mercy of God, each is invited to welcome the Lord who “comes to your house.” Likewise, the Holy Father urged us all to be “builders of bridges, not of walls.”

Some have dubbed World Youth Day as “Catholic Woodstock.” That 1969 gathering galvanized a generation of Americans at what Wikipedia describes as “a pivotal moment in popular music history, as well as the definitive nexus for the larger counterculture generation.” Kraków, too, was countercultural, but it was no Woodstock. The message of World Youth Day was the Gospel of Mercy.

After a few days together, it was time to invade airports and train stations, time to go home. But what of the Youth Day spirit? Would it remain in Poland? The Pope himself considered this question in his homily at the concluding Mass on Sunday:

“You have come to Kraków to meet Jesus. . .

“We can say that World Youth Day begins today and continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on. The Lord doesn’t want to remain in this beautiful city, or in cherished memories alone. He wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies, your first years of work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams. How greatly he desires that you bring all this to him in prayer! How much he hopes that, in all the contacts and chats of each day, pride of place be given to the golden thread of prayer! How much he wants his word to be able to speak to you day after day, so that you can make his Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life!”

Mindful of social media’s influence especially in the lives of youth, the Holy Father urged young people to “download the best link of all, that of a heart which sees and transmits goodness without growing weary.”

He said their response to the challenges of life cannot be “texting a few words,” that prayer should be given pride of place over their internet chats and that God’s memory was not a “hard disk” filled with files on everyone, but more of a compassionate heart that wants to help them erase evil.

After every Youth Day, I wonder how “Catholic Woodstock” might change the lives of the young people who were fortunate enough to be participants. Only time will tell. . .but WYD also has the potential to affect in profound ways the not-so-young who were privileged to encounter the gathered youth. For, if these “kids” are a fair sample of their generation, then the best truly is yet to come. These youthful pilgrims endured the hardships of extremely long walks, limited sleep, unfamiliar food, crowded trams, relentless sun and sometimes torrential rains, and they did so without complaint. They sensed the special nature of their being together and perhaps they even heard the whisper of the Lord who invites them to take up their cross and follow him. If the Master suffered, how can any of us expect to avoid our own challenges?

Yes, World Youth Day is over for now…but the real journey is just beginning. May the Lord give strength to all as they tread the paths before them; and may they be merciful just as God is merciful to each one of us.