A month away from my freshman year of college, I stuffed my backpack onto the bottom of a bus and took off with about 50 young people heading north to Toronto.
Three years later, I squeezed the same backpack into the overhead compartment on an airplane carrying excited young people to Cologne, Germany.
Another six years after that, I was chaperoning a group of high school students as they nervously boarded a plane – some for the first time – on our way to Madrid, Spain.
Each of these treks to other countries was ultimately for one evening, standing in a field with a million close friends (close by proximity), waiting to be addressed by the Vicar of Christ.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II invited young people to join him in Rome for Palm Sunday. On that day, 300,000 young people came. This set the stage for international gatherings every two or three years with millions of young people sacrificing everything from comfort to cleanliness to personal space to savings accounts in order to attend. As the leader for my first two World Youth Days insisted, “This is a pilgrimage, not a vacation.”
World Youth Day is not a 24-hour event. Rather, it involves three or four days of catechesis and a celebration of Catholic culture. Bishops and cardinals from across the world give dynamic lectures in each attendee’s native language. Mass according to native language is offered each day. Catholic musicians, artists and speakers lead concerts, art exhibits, movie screenings and presentations.
These preparatory days involve meeting strangers from throughout the world – trading miniature flags or pins to proudly decorate one’s World Youth Day backpack, attempting to converse with hand signals and smiles if words are misunderstood. Friendships are made. Pictures are taken. E-mails are exchanged. Meals are shared.
But on the Thursday of each World Youth Day event, a new guest arrives. The Holy Father enters the crowds of boisterous, exuberant youth, each touched by the witness of an elderly man who has made his own sacrifices to share time with them.
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