|An estimated 3 million people pack Copacabana beach for the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro July 28. (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters)
In 1985, Blessed John Paul II invited Catholic dioceses to celebrate World Youth Day on Palm Sunday each year. In addition to the annual diocesan events, major international celebrations of World Youth Day followed every two or three years. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continued the tradition of his predecessor and met Catholic youth from around the world in Germany (2005), Australia (2008) and Spain (2011).
When Pope Francis addressed the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday this year, less than two weeks after his election, he referred to the international celebration of World Youth Day that was scheduled to take place in July in Rio de Janeiro. Addressing the throng of young people present, he said, “Dear friends, I too am setting out on a journey with you, starting today, in the footsteps of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”
And what a journey it was for the first pope of the Americas to return to his own continent for a historic, triumphant celebration of faith that caught the attention of people everywhere!
From July 23-28, Rio de Janeiro, with its great statue of Christ the Redeemer high atop the Corcovado mountain overlooking the city below, literally hosted the world. While the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016 are also set to take place in Rio, the summer of 2013 allowed South America to welcome the young people of the world and the newly elected Successor of Peter in ways that no sporting event can ever dream of doing. Rio struck gold with WYD 2013.
The theme of this year’s World Youth Day was taken from Matthew 28:19: “Go and make disciples of all nations!” This is the great missionary mandate that Christ gave the whole Church, and it remains as urgent as ever nearly 2,000 years later.
Once again, the Knights of Columbus played an important role in the celebration of World Youth Day. Following the Order’s great tradition of support in Denver (1993), Toronto (2002), Sydney (2008), and especially in Madrid (2011) at the Love and Life Centre for English-speaking pilgrims, the Supreme Council this year sponsored an English-language meeting place at Vivo Rio, a performing arts facility on the shores of Guanabara Bay.
The programming at Vivo Rio Centre was a collaborative effort of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Holy Cross Family Ministries, Salt + Light Catholic Television, the Society of Jesus, the National Religious Vocations Conference, and several other partnering organizations. Some 3,000 young people from countries around the world visited the site daily July 24-26.
From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, pilgrims had a home for dynamic programming at Vivo Rio. As in previous years, the bishop-led catechesis each morning focused on pre-selected themes for World Youth Day: thirsting for God, Christian discipleship and becoming missionaries. At Vivo Rio, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston presented the talks, followed by questions and answers.
Following daily Mass, programming continued with talks, musical performances and other youth festival events. And the veranda of Vivo Rio was transformed into a large area for the sacrament of reconciliation, where hundreds of confessions were heard continuously throughout the week.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the Vivo Rio Centre also hosted national gatherings for U.S., Canadian and Australian pilgrims. Altogether, Brazil welcomed nearly 12,000 pilgrims from the United States, 1,200 from Canada and 1,500 Australians, among other English-speaking nations. Although these numbers were fewer than previous years due to high travel costs and security concerns, World Youth Day left a significant impression on the pilgrims who participated.
The former head of World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Bishop Anthony Fisher of Paramatta, Australia, was among those present for the events in Rio. He reflected on how World Youth Day is an example of the “new evangelization.” In a televised interview with Salt + Light Television, he said, “[World Youth Day] has a huge impact on hundreds of thousands of young people every few years. And they, in turn, go back and influence their peers, their parishes, their dioceses.”
Cardinal Dolan likewise asserted, “One of the fruits of World Youth Day is for our young people to see that they’re not alone; they’re part of something bigger, they’re part of the Church universal and they’re part of the communion of saints. … What they’re part of is not even limited to this earth.”
‘THE CHURCH IS YOUNG’
What made Rio’s World Youth Day such an unforgettable experience? Yes, there was the sheer numbers of pilgrims from around the world who travelled such great distances culminating in 3 million people on Copacabana beach for the concluding Mass. There was the effusive, contagious joy and warm welcome of the Brazilian Church. There was the chaos of traffic jams, blocked tunnels, street closures, lack of information and torrential rain.
But at the heart of this World Youth Day was a simple, holy and loving shepherd who traveled to Rio and wowed everyone with his simplicity and his desire to be close to people. Like the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer high atop Corcovado, arms open wide to embrace the world, Pope Francis came to remind us of God’s mercy, tenderness and closeness to us. The pope made sure to address not only those who were fortunate enough to be present at the great events, but he also went to meet young people in one of Rio’s most violent favelas, visited youths who are in prison, inaugurated a drug rehabilitation center, lunched with a select group of pilgrims from around the world, heard the confessions of others, and allowed himself to be physically touched by thousands who reached out to him along the way.
God alone knows how many sick, suffering and handicapped people Pope Francis stopped to touch and bless. He embraced them and even wept with some of them. It called to mind the scene in the Acts of the Apostles in which people from the towns surrounding Jerusalem gathered, bringing those who needed healing to St. Peter: “Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them” (Acts 5:15).
In Rio, the first Latin American pope let us clearly see what Pope Benedict observed during his inaugural Mass in 2005: “The Church is alive, and the Church is young.” In Rio, the world saw how true Benedict’s words were!
In his parting message during the departure ceremony July 28, Pope Francis said, “At World Youth Days, the proclamation of the Gospel can only be the result of the joy that comes from meeting Christ and finding in him the rock on which our lives can be built. The event in Rio gathers us together as pilgrims in search of Jesus Christ and sends us forth as disciples and missionaries.”
In the end, Rio 2013 reminds us of a central truth. Jesus sent his disciples forth on a mission with this command: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). And this Good News is Jesus himself. He is not only the Redeemer of Corcovado, but the Savior of the world. He is alive in the Church, a community that is vibrant and young.
Those who took part in the great celebration of faith and Catholic life in Rio de Janeiro will never be the same. They traveled to Rio as pilgrims. They have been sent forth as disciples and missionaries to share what they have seen and heard.
BASILIAN FATHER THOMAS ROSICA, a member of Toronto Council 1388, is CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation. He served as National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Canada, and is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
World Youth Day Kraków 2016
At the concluding Mass in Brazil, Pope Francis announced that the next international celebration of World Youth Day will take place in Kraków, Poland, in 2016. Hours later, the official website was launched at krakow2016.com. Knights of Columbus in Poland are among those currently preparing for the event.
Additionally, more information about the events at World Youth Day 2013, including videos of the daily catechesis at Vivo Rio and major WYD events, is available at the Salt + Light website wydcentral.org.