The big bash is over. Hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims have packed up their rain-soaked sleeping bags, soggy sneakers, and rosary beads and headed back to Hungary, Brazil, Australia, Burundi, Toledo, and every other nook and cranny on Earth.
For American Catholic youths now enduring a seemingly endless stream of news reports of clerical sex abuse, World Youth Day in Toronto was a refreshing week full of affirmation, encouragement, and unity.
As Pope John Paul II told the crowd of 800,000 faithful at Sunday's concluding Mass, the scandal “fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests whose only wish is to serve and do good.”
Those words were reinforced by the sheer size of World Youth Day. Time after time, young Catholics whom I talked to expressed awe and amazement at being around so many people from so many countries who shared the same faith.
At the mega-events or just strolling around Toronto - the cosmopolitan Ontario city of 2.5 million - pilgrims bearing their official red-and-beige WYD backpacks hung out in clusters around their countrymen.
In a single city block, passersby could hear snippets of conversations in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian, Korean, Russian, Norwegian, Arabic, or any number of languages from the 169 countries with representatives at World Youth Day.
Almost all of the teens and young adults I talked to in Toronto said that meeting other youngsters from different cultures, whether in formal discussions or just bumping into them at meals, was a highlight of their trip.
Walking through the vast grounds of Downsview Park before the Sunday morning Mass, I passed by what appeared to be several acres full of campers from Croatia flying dozens of red, white, blue, and checkered flags. Next to them was an even larger group of Brazilian pilgrims. Next to them were thousands of Hungarians, then thousands of Germans, then thousand of Poles, then thousands of Koreans. ...
On and on it went, as far as the eye could see, further than my aching feet wanted to go, and the global strength and diversity of the Catholic Church became profoundly clear.
We Americans tend to think that the world revolves around us. We set the pace and everyone else must try to keep up. We may be strong and we may have clout, but World Youth Day was a vivid reminder that it's a mighty big world out there.
And a great big church.
Many of the pilgrims from other continents were barely aware of the anguish their U.S. brethren are now feeling. That does not in any way diminish the severity of the American scandal, but it did give the many young Catholics at World Youth Day a new and larger understanding of their church.
“There are so many people from other countries that the scandal didn't affect,” one 17-year-old told me, quite surprised.
One 30-year-old man from Lebanon called the U.S. crisis “a passing cloud.”
Everywhere one looked, priests, brothers, nuns, bishops, and cardinals were mingling with the faithful.
Words of encouragement crossed paths in all directions - from the Pope to the masses, from the priests to the teenagers, from the youths to the clergy.
On a hot weekday afternoon, for example, retired Bishop Thomas Connelly of Baker, Ore., sat in the shade of a large square sign, leaning on the post as he ate a lunch of hamburger and fries.
A youth from Sydney, Australia, approached the 80-year-old bishop with a big smile, shook his hand, and said: “God bless you, Your Grace. Thank you for all the work you've done for God.”
Such unsolicited praise for a life of devotion is energizing, Bishop Connelly said with a smile. Being around multitudes of young people who love God and who want to be involved in their church cannot help but stir optimism, he said.
In 1978, when Pope John Paul was elected leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics, he pledged that youth would always be a priority. He instituted World Youth Day in 1985, and on the years between the biennial gatherings it is celebrated locally on Palm Sunday.
The Pope loves young people and young people love the Pope. They see his tremendous will power and his towering spirit, not just the fragile body hobbled by age and disease. They listen attentively to his words, thirsting for every drop of wisdom.
At his welcoming ceremony, the Pontiff referred to himself as “the aged Pope, full of years but still young at heart.” At Sunday's Mass, he said, “You are young and the Pope is old and a bit tired. But he still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations.”
He told them not to seek joy in money, success, or power, nor in “the superficial and fleeting pleasure of the senses.”
“True joy is a victory,” the Pontiff said, “something which cannot be obtained without a long and difficult struggle. Christ holds the secret of this victory.”
In his closing remarks, John Paul quoted 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.”
World Youth Day 2002 lasted less than a week, but for those youths who take the Pope's words to heart, its impact could last a lifetime.
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