In the lead up to the largest gathering in Canada’s history, the World Youth Day Cross made a 16-month pilgrimage through more than 350 cities. The pilgrimage was made possible through the support of the Knights of Columbus as Toronto prepared to host the 17th International World Youth Day, July 23-28, 2002.
Ten years later, we still bask in the radiant memories of that summer.
When the cross finally arrived in Toronto in July, it was soon followed by hundreds of thousands of young people from 172 nations and an elderly pope who stunned critics immediately upon his arrival. Blessed Pope John Paul II painstakingly walked down the steps of his plane instead of using the special lift that had been prepared for him, and at the official welcoming ceremony that day, he spoke these words to the people of Canada: “Canadians are heirs to an extraordinarily rich humanism, enriched even more by the blend of many different cultural elements…. In a world of great social and ethical strains, and confusion about the very purpose of life, Canadians have an incomparable treasure to contribute on condition that they preserve what is deep, and good, and valid in their own heritage.”
Catholic young people carry the World Youth Day Cross into downtown Toronto June 9, 2002, on the final leg of the cross’ journey through Canada.
On Friday evening, Toronto’s majestic University Avenue was transformed into the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem as more than half a million people participated in the ancient Stations of the Cross in the heart of a modern city. Thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the event also had a worldwide television audience.
At the deeply moving Saturday evening candlelight vigil at Downsview Park, which drew together more than 600,000 people, John Paul II spoke stirring words to the young people: “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?”
When the concluding papal Mass on Sunday gathered 850,000 people, even the most cynical among us could not help but be impressed by the stream of young people who expressed their joy at being Christians in a complex and war-torn world.
Blessed John Paul II’s personal words in his last World Youth Day homily that morning still resound in my ears: “You are young, and the pope is old, 82 or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23. But the pope still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations. Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. You are our hope, the young are our hope. Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
World Youth Day in Toronto was not a show, a rave party, a protest or a photo opportunity. Against a background of global terror and fear, economic collapse in many countries, and ecclesial scandals, World Youth Day 2002 presented a bold, alternative vision of compelling beauty, hope and joy, offering a Church that is alive and young. The memories of July 2002 continue to inspire and encourage us with hope as we strive always to build up the Church in Canada.
BASILIAN FATHER THOMAS ROSICA, a member of Toronto Council 1388, was the national director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto. He has been the CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation since 2003 and is also president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario.