What’s the point of World Youth Day (WYD)?
The Chicago Tribune said it well six years before the first WYD, covering the visit of Blessed John Paul II to the city October of 1979: “For forty hours, the visitor from Rome unites the city in spirit.”
I was 15-years-old at the time, and thrilled that Mom took my brothers and I from high school to attend the three-hour Mass in Grant Park that attracted an estimated 200,000 people. We jammed onto a train full of spirited people who spontaneously broke into singing familiar hymns as we headed east. Streets downtown were cordoned off and crowds surged toward Grant Park, praying, singing and introducing themselves to fellow pilgrims.
We stood at a curb for hours, waiting for the Holy Father to pass and Mass to begin. A battalion of Knights of Columbus formed an honor guard along the street, and I despaired of seeing a thing. But when John Paul II passed in an open-air vehicle (no Popemobiles back then) and buoyantly greeted the crowd, I poked my head through the crooked arm of a caped Knight, and caught a full-face glimpse of the Holy Father. I’ll never forget his joy, the crowd's, nor mine.
Not every day do you experience 200,000 people fervently voicing together their Alleluias. During his homily, Pope John Paul II said, "Looking at you, I see people who have thrown their destinies together and now write a common history. . . This is the way America was conceived; this is what she was called to be. . .But there is another reality that I see when I look at you. . .your unity as members of the People of God."
Somehow, priests managed to distribute communion to the massive crowd. Silence at that moment was profound, broken only by priests murmuring “The Body of Christ,” and people affirming, “Amen (so be it),” as they received the Eucharist.
Later, we walked to Union Station and wended home in a standing-room-only railcar, again joining in spontaneous bursts of song.
Impressed by the joviality and kindness of a Knight of Columbus I had befriended that day, I wrote to the Knights sharing my growing conviction that I had a religious vocation. One wrote back, encouraging me to live prayerfully as a teen and focus on home duties and studies, while I continued praying and discerning God’s call.
My attraction to religious life faded, but when post-college desperation to find a job drove me to answer a blind ad looking for a secretarial assistant, I arrived for the interview to discover that EXTENSION was a Catholic home mission magazine. That led to my writing about the Faith and home missions for more than twenty years – a job that has blessed and enlivened my life and soul in more ways than I could number.
In January, 1994, I headed to Rome to attend the elevation to bishop of then head of Extension Society, Edward J. Slattery, now Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
My group attended a private audience with Pope John Paul II, and when the aged pontiff met my eyes and grasped my hand, I believe he said three words to me: “Family, family, family.” I was around ten weeks pregnant with my first child at the time.
When I think of my life’s formative events, experiencing Blessed John Paul II’s visit to Chicago, and meeting him in Rome number right up there with my Wedding, Confirmation and First Communion. When I’ve strayed or my spirit’s flagged, I’ve always had the inspiration from those encounters drawing me back.
What’s the point of World Youth Day? Look at all the crowds of young people gathered with Pope Benedict XVI in Madrid, with the Holy Spirit’s work hidden but active in each soul. Who knows how this encounter with the Holy Father and each other will impact each life? The meaning of World Youth Day is eternal, but for the needs of our suffering world NOW.