Laboratories of Faith

World Youth Days in the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II

A lecture by  Basilian Father Thomas Rosica
April 6, 2011
Knights of Columbus Museum
New Haven, Connecticut

Thomas Rosica

Allow me to begin this evening’s presentation with the words of Pope Paul VI addressed to the “Youth of the World” on December 8, 1965, at the close of the Second Vatican Council in Rome:

“The Church looks to you with confidence and with love. Rich with a long past ever living in her, and marching on toward human perfection in time and the ultimate destinies of history and of life, the Church is the real youth of the world. She possesses what constitutes the strength and the charm of youth, that is to say the ability to rejoice with what is beginning, to give oneself unreservedly, to renew one’s self and to set out again for new conquests. Look upon the Church and you will find in her the face of Christ, the genuine, humble and wise Hero, the prophet of truth and love, the companion and friend of youth. It is in the name of Christ that we salute you, that we exhort and bless you.”

Though first spoken in 1965, long before World Youth Days began, these words served as a leitmotif for Pope John Paul II as he would launch these great “laboratories” of faith twenty years later. Through these national and international gatherings, the Holy has made it very clear: young people are not only the future of the church, but they are also its present. The experiences of World Youth Days in Argentina, Spain, Poland, Denver, Manila, Paris, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia, and soon once again Spain have brought so much new life to each of the countries where the great events took place.

The Toronto Experience

In July 2002, Toronto hosted the 17th International World Youth Day. Several hundred thousand young people from 172 nations descended upon the city—and with them came the elderly and infirm Pope John Paul II. Toronto may have lost the Olympic bid two years earlier, but it struck gold with World Youth Day, which I was privileged to serve as its national director and Chief Executive Officer. The sheer numbers of people taking part in the four days of events astounded us. More than 350,000 people packed Exhibition Place on Thursday afternoon, July 25, for the opening ceremony with Pope John Paul II.

The following evening, Toronto’s majestic University Avenue was transformed into the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem as more than half a million people took part in the ancient Stations of the Cross. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Canada told us that the worldwide television audience that night was more than a billion people in 160 countries.

The spectacular Saturday evening candlelight vigil at Downsview Park drew together more than 600,000 people, and the concluding papal mass on Sunday, with its atmospheric special effects, gathered 850,000 people at a former military base in the city. Even the most cynical among us could not help but be impressed, even moved, by the streams of young people who expressed their joy at being Christians in a complex and war-torn world.

On the tarmac for the Saturday evening vigil, John Paul II spoke to the young people: “The new millennium opened with two contrasting scenarios,” he declared. “One, the sight of multitudes of pilgrims coming to Rome during the Great Jubilee to pass through the Holy Door which is Christ, our Savior and Redeemer; and the other, the terrible terrorist attack on New York, an image that is a sort of icon of a world in which hostility and hatred seem to prevail. The question that arises is dramatic: On what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the 20th century? Is it enough to rely on the technological revolution now taking place, which seems to respond only to criteria of productivity and efficiency, without reference to the individual’s spiritual dimension or to any universally shared ethical values? Is it right to be content with provisional answers to the ultimate questions, and to abandon life to the impulses of instinct, to short-lived sensations or passing fads?”

The provocative images the pope evoked that night remain engraved on people’s memories. In fact throughout the Pope’s messages delivered to us those blessed days, he touched upon all that had challenged us in our two-year preparation period. During the Angelus prayer at Downsview Park that Sunday, July 28, 2002, before a crowd of nearly 850,000 people and a worldwide television audience of millions, Pope John Paul II summed up beautifully the sentiments of millions of people who were touched in some way by World Youth Day 2002:

“As we prepare to return home, I say, in the words of Saint Augustine: “We have been happy together in the light we have shared. We have really enjoyed being together. We have really rejoiced. But as we leave one another, let us not leave Him.”

Canada needed World Youth Days to call us back to our deeply Christian origins and heritage. It is only when a nation and a society reclaim their original identity that they can ever hope to become authentically multicultural, tolerant, and open to others.

Papal pedagogy

Through World Youth Days and reinvigorated youth and young adult pastoral ministry in the universal Church, Pope John Paul II unleashed something totally new, unthinkable back in 1984 when he launched this bold pastoral plan.

But it is important to realize that Pope John Paul II did not invent World Youth Days. Rather, they were born in the heart of a young, polish priest by the name of Karol Wojtyla, who from the very beginning of his priestly ministry, made a special place for young people in his life. His example is clear to each of us if we hope to reach the young. Make a place for them in your heart and ministry from the very beginning.

The experiences of World Youth Days in recent years have brought much new life to each of the countries where the great events have taken place. One of the important goals of World Youth Day is to instill hope and vibrancy in the church—to differ with the cynicism, despair, and meaninglessness so prevalent in the world today. Pope John Paul II knew well that our world today offers fragmentation, loneliness, alienation, and rampant globalization that exploit the poor.

In preparing for World Youth Day in Canada, I read “Life After God” a collection of short stories published in 1994 by the Canadian author Douglas Coupland. The stories are set around a theme of a generation raised without religion. On the jacket of the book was this line: “You are the first generation to be raised without religion.” I copied one quote of that book and kept it on my desk throughout the preparation for World Youth Day 2002. Coupland wrote:

“Now—here is my secret; I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me to be kind as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love as I seem beyond being able to love.”

Those words were a daily reminder of the generation we were trying to reach and serve through World Youth Day 2002. What then, have the joy, exuberance, and creativity surrounding the 2002 World Youth Day taught us, and how have they transformed youth and young adult ministry in the Canadian church? How have we initiated a “preferential option” for young people in the church today? How can we give the flavor of the gospel and the light of Christ to the world today? I will attempt to answer these questions from our Canadian experience through a series of ten points I have formulated over the past nine years of “Life After World Youth Day 2002.”

1. Pope John Paul’s biblical theme for WYD 2002 was providential and highly appropriate for our Canadian society and a world steeped in mediocrity and darkness. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). Pope Benedict’s brilliant choice of “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) allowed the young people of the world to encounter or perhaps rediscover the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives and in the life of the Church. Benedict’s teaching on the Holy Spirit in Sydney was nothing short of brilliant.

During World Youth Days, bishops and cardinals serve as teachers and catechists. Thousands of young people gather around them to hear reflections based on the Word of God, and in particular on the theme of the event. This novel invention has taken on a life of its own, becoming an intrinsic part of the celebrations. How many times was this evoked at the last Synod of Bishops in Rome, that focused on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church!” The catechetical teaching sessions on Scripture have become not only a unique encounter between generations, but also an opportunity to proclaim and preach the Word of God across cultures, offering to young people concrete possibilities for living a biblically rooted life.

How do we build on the biblical themes of World Youth Days, deepen them, allow them to penetrate the heart of pastoral ministry with young people in our country? Does the bible play a significant part in our ministry with young people? What biblical stories and images animate our pastoral initiatives with young people? How often have we turned elsewhere to find “themes,” “ideas,” “fillers” for our work with young people, rather than drawing our deepest inspiration from biblical stories, biblical language, biblical themes that no consulting agency, pop-jargon or fleeting trend can offer?

2. World Youth Days offer deeply prayerful celebrations of the Eucharist, and opportunities to experience the Eucharistic Lord in moments of quiet prayer, adoration, communal and individual worship. Liturgies of World Youth Day are prepared and planned with great diligence, care, precision and tremendous beauty. Through these moments young people are offered privileged moments of encounter with Jesus himself. These moments are enhanced by the careful selection of liturgical music that is not in competition with the world of theatre, spectacle and the surrounding din of noise and emptiness. And yet what do we do when the young people who have experienced such tremendous moments “come down from the mountain” and return to our parish communities?

3. During WYD 2002 in Toronto, over 100,000 young people celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was the same in Syndey. It will continue in Madrid in August. Through this sacrament Christ lets us meet him and brings out the best in us. In our pastoral work with young people, do we present this sacrament as a privileged encounter with Christ who heals, forgives and liberates us?

4. World Youth Days offer the Church profound moments to deepen our Christian piety and devotion. In Canada during 2001-2002, the historic, 43,000-km pilgrimage of the WYD Cross and the powerful presentation of the Stations of the Cross were a provocative, profound witness of the Christian story in the heart of a modern city. I and many others were convinced that if, for some reason, the World Youth Day event itself would have to be cancelled because of the results of September 11, the pilgrimage of the Cross had already worked its miracles across our vast land and united the Church in ways that nothing was ever able to do previously.

The presentation of the Stations of the Cross in both Toronto and Sydney was a spectacle for the world. One year after World Youth Day 2002 had ended, the ever colorful, rather comical, Jewish mayor of the huge city of Toronto called a press conference to announce that he would no longer seek political office after 43 years of public service. At that memorable gathering before hoards of journalists, Mayor Lastman had on either side of him at the podium his rabbi and myself, whom he called publicly: “my priest.” In his farewell speech to the crowd that day, he said: “The crowning moment of my political career was on a Friday night last July, on the main boulevard of downtown Toronto, during the Jesus parade. (He never quite got the wording right for the “Stations of the Cross.) The Mayor then told the assembly: “That was the night that God claimed the city for his own.”

How will we continue these traditions of public piety and devotion in your parish communities and youth activities? Will you go against the grain and acknowledge the need for solid, biblically rooted Christian piety and devotion in the lives of young people today?

5. During his pontificate, John Paul II proclaimed 1,338 Blesseds and 482 Saints. Young adults need heroes and heroines today, and the Pope gave us outstanding models of holiness and humanity. Nine young blesseds and saints were patrons of WYD 2002; several more were patrons for WYD 2005. Pope Benedict XVI spoke to that great assembly of over one million young people gathered in prayer at Marienfeld: “The saints … are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world.” Is the teaching of the Blesseds and Saints an integral part of your catechesis, Evangelization, formation of young people? In a world that desperately seeks authentic heroes and heroines, how often do we present the Blesseds and Saints as the real role models for young people today?

6. One of the significant contributions of World Youth Day 2002 to the universal Church and to young people throughout the world was the highly successful Vocations Pavilion at Exhibition Place. The security personnel informed us that 50-55,000 young people visited the pavilion each day for the week of World Youth Day 2002. Sydney built on that tradition through an excellent Vocation Centre at World Youth Day 2008. The phenomenon of World Youth Days has become a powerful seedbed for vocations to the priesthood, consecrated life, and lay ecclesial ministries. Whether it is because those who have already sensed a call choose to attend World Youth Days out of their strong faith life, or because World Youth Day awakens young adults for the first time to the special call of God, World Youth Days can be a moment of life-changing discernment.

The World Youth Day Vocation Harvest is underway throughout the world. It is not an instantaneous process, as we well know. Nevertheless seeds were sown generously at each World Youth Day. We must sow with generosity, hope and love. Others will water. The Lord will reap the harvest.

I have received many letters, testimonies, witnesses from young people speak convincingly that their vocations were born at large vigil ceremonies with John Paul II, during the Sacrament of Reconciliation at World Youth Days and in the midst of catechesis sessions. A whole new generation of young people identifies the World Youth Day experiences to be critical in their discernment process. In working with Catholic young adults, we have the responsibility and obligation to raise the subject of priestly, religious, and lay ministry vocations with openness, conviction, pastoral sensitivity and common sense.

How have our vocational strategies addressed these important questions flowing from the international experiences of World Youth Days? How often do we raise vocational questions with young people who have returned from World Youth Days?

7. I would like to refer to this point as “overcoming the crisis of ideologies” that has plagued my generation and several other generations. Excessive tensions arising from church politics, gender issues, liturgical practices, language, false interpretations of the Second Vatican Council—all of these influence today’s candidates for ordained ministry, religious life, and pastoral involvement in the Church.

The grumblings, discontent, cynicism, fatigue, unfair labeling and pigeonholing of others, the lack of charity and hope of my generation and older generations rise to fever pitch, and keep us blinded to a new generation of young people who might be much more serious about Church, God and discipleship of Jesus than we are! Many of my generation do not wish to admit this fact.

The great contemporary tragedy is that many people in leadership positions in the Church, in religious life, and “professional” pastoral ministry are out of touch with the younger generation. With blanket statements often replete with psychological or sociological jargon, various religious leaders, vocation directors, chaplains and lay pastoral ministers simply dismiss today’s young people as being: neo-conservative, right-wing, evangelical, ecclesially dysfunctional, blind, doctrinal, pietistic, theologically illiterate, or even papal groupies, etc. The new twist added to the above is the oft-heard “So and so is a John Paul II priest or youth minister, and not a Vatican II person!” As if John Paul II was not influenced by the Second Vatican Council!

8. Pope John Paul II impressed upon the new generation the dignity and sacredness of human life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Life is an extraordinary adventure, a God-given gift to be cherished, treasured, and protected. Is it any surprise that so many hundreds of thousands of young people consider themselves to be explicitly pro-life, while their parents are so whimsical and non-committal to the issues of life and death? In John Paul II’s “Culture of Life” we must make room for the stranger and the homeless. We must comfort and care for the sick and dying. We must look after the aged and the abandoned. We must welcome the immigrant. We must defend innocent children waiting to be born.

9. Pope John Paul II helped us to realize that the Church is dying in politically correct places where the Gospel is preached as merely a lifestyle option in a global supermarket of spiritualities without the obligation of belonging to the Church. The Church is thriving where the full Gospel is preached in clarity, charity, piety, devotion—in its full integrity. John Paul II told young people that there is every reason for the truth of the Cross to be called the Good News. Young people took these words to heart and have carried the Cross around the world for the past twenty years. Not just the two beams of wood but the message of the Cross and its saving power. In Canada we are unlikely to forget the powerful images of the World Youth Day Cross on its historic, 16-month, 43,000 km pilgrimage from sea to sea to sea. The Pope entrusted this Cross to young people. They have carried it triumphantly across the face of the earth almost like an Olympic torch.

10. Pope John Paul II taught us that the adventure of orthodoxy—the challenge of fidelity and integrity, authenticity and solidarity —is what attracts young people today. Young people don’t want to live on the surface. In a world that constantly panders to the young, a challenging Church, which combines the truth with charity and pastoral care, is a very attractive proposition. How many times did John Paul II speak to young people reminding them that the family is the privileged place for the humanization of the person and of society, and that the future of the world and of the Church passes through it?

World Youth Day does not belong to one Pope

In remarks at the concluding Mass thanking Pope Benedict XVI, Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell said that World Youth Day acts as an antidote to images of Catholicism as in decline or wracked by controversy. “It shows the church as it really is, alive with evangelical energy.” Australian Cardinal, George Pell concluded his address to Pope Benedict XVI at Randwick Race Course with these prophetic and affirming words:

“Your Holiness, the World Youth Days were the invention of Pope John Paul the Great. The World Youth Day in Cologne was already announced before your election. You decided to continue the World Youth Days and to hold this one in Sydney. We are profoundly grateful for this decision, indicating that the World Youth Days do not belong to one pope, or even one generation, but are now an ordinary part of the life of the Church. The John Paul II generation—young and old alike—is proud to be faithful sons and daughters of Pope Benedict.”

Cardinal Pell was “spot on” as they say down under. We would say: “he hit the nail on the head.” I was very moved when I heard those words that morning at Randwick. Before you sleep this night, I invite you to kneel down and say a prayer of thanksgiving for Cardinal Pell, Bishop Anthony Fisher, Archbishop Wilson and your bishops who believed wholeheartedly in World Youth Day in Sydney. They risked their all for this blessed event. They stood behind it and the young people who organized it. Such support is not a given in other parts of the world and should never be taken for granted.


We may choose to speak of our World Youth Days as something in the past—that brightened the shadows and monotony of our lives at one shining moment in history. Some may wish to call those golden days “Camelot” moments. That is one way to consider the WYD - fading memories of extraordinary, triumphal moments in history.

There is, however, another way: the Gospel way. The Gospel story is not about “Camelot” but about “Magnificat,” constantly inviting Christians to take up Mary’s hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the ways that Almighty God breaks through human history here and now. This way is not only nourished by memories, however good and beautiful they may be. The resurrection of Jesus is not a memory of a distant, past event, but it is Good News that continues to be fulfilled today—here and now. The Christian story is neither folklore nor nostalgia—a trip down triumphal church lane.

As we continue to bask in the glorious light of each of the WYD events, we must be honest and admit that World Youth Days offer no panacea or quick fix to the problems and challenges of our times, or the challenges facing the Church today as we reach out to younger generations. Instead, World Youth Days offer a new framework and new lenses through which we look at the Church and the world, and build our common future. One thing is clear: no one could go away from any World Youth Day thinking that it is possible to compartmentalize the faith or reduce it to a few rules and regulations and Sunday observances.

I began with inspiring and evocative words of Pope Paul VI addressed to the young people of the world at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Allow me to conclude with words of another great Church leader, the American Cardinal James Francis Stafford, who served as President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and as such oversaw the World Youth Days in Paris, Rome and Toronto.

I cannot help but recall Cardinal Stafford’s stirring words spoken to the throngs of young people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and its vicinity at the opening ceremonies of the rather apocalyptic Jubilee World Youth Day on August 15, 2000. Addressing a visibly moved and aging Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Stafford said:

“Holy Father! These young people come as pilgrims from 157 nations. … They all have come to the eternal City at your invitation. They wish to be with you, their Holy Father and the successor of St. Peter, and to hear you proclaim afresh to them: “Dear young people! Do not be afraid! Jesus is risen! We are one body in Christ!”

Not too long ago, it was an ominous portent when thousands of young people moved across national borders. Citizens trembled in fear. They closed and barricaded their doors. For those hosts of young men signified armies of war, instruments of destruction, plague and darkness.

At your initiative, Holy Father, these young men and women of Europe and of the world have formed a different kind of army. … Holy Father, you have seen clearly that these young people are the generation of the Second Vatican Council. They are “on pilgrimage from the Lord” (LG 6). They reflect the beauty envisioned by you and the Fathers of the Council. That beauty, still incomplete but ever orientated towards fullness, is found in the weaving of the various paradoxes of freedom and obedience, of faith and culture, of eros—passionate joy of living—and asceticism.

Holy Father, as you walked in the 1960’s to the Council’s sessions to express again the mystery of the always-youthful Church, you experienced the embrace of these great colonnades many times. Today we all pray that your happiness may be full. For these youthful multitudes, now embraced by the arms of St. Peter also, are living witnesses to the Council’s hope and to yours.”