The three million young pilgrims attending World Youth Day this year are just one part of a radical Catholic movement begun by John Paul II and developed by Pope Benedict
World Youth Day concluded at the final mass with Pope Benedict and three million pilgrims today in Madrid.
A final pilgrimage, evening vigil with the Pope, and morning send-off mass are the climax and signature events of World Youth Day. Last evening at the pilgrimage site, the Quatro Vientos military airport in Madrid, almost one million young people were left outside of the site as record numbers of pilgrims arrived, and the site capacity of two million pilgrims was met and exceeded.
I was one of the pilgrims caught outside, waiting for a chance to get in. As we waited and milled around I was struck by the behaviour of the pilgrims. As almost one million pilgrim groups were turned away from the gates, after having travelled from near and far, these groups calmly received the news, and sat down in circles to pray, to sing, and to play together. Pilgrims from Africa joined pilgrims from Madrid in the task of waiting peacefully for what might happen next.
Surprisingly, what happened next was a snap sand and electrical storm, which tore through the site destroying temporary chapels, and the tenting and camping sites of the pilgrims. Lightning lit up the sky and a torrential downpour drenched the young people and their sleeping bags. In the midst of this, a path suddenly opened up among the volunteers and police, and, while hundreds of pilgrims streamed out, hundreds more streamed in. I quickly found some cardboard to protect against the rains and wind, and huddled in a makeshift shelter for the duration of the storm.
The end of the storm led to a surprisingly chilly evening, where many pilgrims slept, some stayed up in adoration and prayer, and others went to the outlying areas to play their guitars and instruments, sing, and dance together.
Despite all of this activity, the main event of WYD was, and continues to be, the moments where young people and the Pope interact. Throughout the week this has been the case, and this dynamic of interaction is the very soul of WYD. In the end, despite the exotic locations to which WYD draws the young people of the church, despite the jubilant atmosphere, shared songs, and new friendships that it sparks, the reason for WYD is for the young people of the world to meet, and pray, with the Pope. In doing this the draw is not a meeting with the Pope, as one would go to a concert with a rock star, but an encounter with the Pope as the representative of Christ on earth.
This fact, for it is this reason alone that drives WYD and that enables it to keep growing with ever increasing numbers of new young Catholics, tells us something about young people in the world today. It also tells us something about the shape of the world tomorrow, given the aspirations and goals of the vast majority of those young pilgrims who come to WYD.
Firstly, these are young people who hunger for the transcendent as a reality in their lives — that is, they are searching for a personal and real encounter with God. Nothing else will suffice, and as the past has demonstrated, WYD is the pivotal moment for many in the identification of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, a fact celebrated and noted at WYD and by Benedict this trip who met separately with young religious, and again with seminarians and young priests. With over 25,000 priests and religious at WYD, it is no wonder that this life has once again become an exciting option for many. With young people thirsting for God, and with heroic examples of happy and holy priests in the world today — most visibly John Paul II and now his successor, Pope Benedict — it is no wonder that religious vocations are once again on the rise.
Secondly, young people are joyful in their Catholic faith, recognising it as a gift to which they can freely respond, rather than as an obligation imposed on them by the Church, their culture or some other figure of authority. Both John Paul II and Benedict have made this teaching of the freedom of the person in relation to Christ a central theme of their papacies and work; with it comes the necessity to defend the freedom of the person in all areas, and, in particular, to insist upon the sacredness of conscience, particularly in the area of freedom of religion. Young people at WYD understand this.
Thirdly, young people at WYD recognise that ideas have consequences, and that the ideas to which they commit bear upon the choices and challenges that they will embrace as they live their lives. Nowhere is this more clear than in the understanding young Catholics have today about the necessity of the defence of the dignity of the person; defended by the church on theological terms, but also in the public square through the use and engagement of reason alone. Pope Benedict addressed this explicitly this week in his address to young people with disabilities, but has continued to reiterate, as John Paul II did before him, the great task facing this young generation, of insisting upon the freedom of the human person by recognising the fundamental dignity of the person which must be protected and affirmed at all stages of life.
Taken together — a desire for God, a recognition of personal freedom (and responsibility), and the understanding that the task of freedom is the defense of the human person — a roadmap for the work of this generation quickly emerges. Along with the three million young people in Madrid this week are all of the other young people who have attended WYD over the past 26 years. They number over 20 million. And, as the Italian reporters calculated at the Rome WYD in 2000, for each young person attending a given WYD, there are 10 more who think like them back at home.
Such a number begins to translate into a new cultural revolution. It is quiet, since it takes place primarily in the heart of individual persons, who decide each day, with each action, what choices to make. It is quiet because it involves the choices of young people to become priests and religious, vocations which the world thinks nothing of, and which it is not able to understand. It is quiet because it involves other choices by young people to marry and found families, becoming mothers and fathers. The task of raising children is a noble and a great one, but it is also quiet, and happens, when it happens well, behind the scenes. It is quiet because among these millions of young people, whose hearts have been touched by the witness and challenge of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are those who have quietly given their lives to the defence of the human person, renewing their task each and every day.
Nevertheless, this quiet cultural revolution is becoming a revolution of significance. With 50 million active participants in the development and implementation of the project of JPII and Benedict XVI in the world, such a project begins to be felt and contributes to the shape of the world.
Today, Benedict XVI sent the three million pilgrims home, but not without the final parting injunction to have the courage to be witnesses to the truth in every area of their lives. I believe that they will do so, and that we will continue to see this witness to the truth in their lives, and in the culture and world around us.