My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Among the millions of participants at the closing Mass for World Youth Day on Sunday, July 28, in Rio di Janiero, Brazil, will be 35 pilgrims from the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois from our parishes in Beardstown, Effingham and Marshall. Travelling with them are Fathers Chris Brey, David Hoefler, Brian Alford and me. The main celebrant for this Mass will be Pope Francis himself, returning to his native South America for his first World Youth Day.
Personally, this is my third World Youth Day, each one with a different pope! In 2002 when I was pastor of St. Constance Parish in Chicago, 20 of us made the 10-hour drive to Toronto to be with Pope John Paul II, soon to be canonized Saint John Paul II. Of course, going to Toronto also meant a side pilgrimage for the Holy Goalie to the Hockey Hall of Fame!
In 2011, the year after my installation as Bishop of Springfield in Illinois, I flew to Madrid, Spain, for the World Youth Day with Pope Benedict XVI. Just as it occurred with Pope John Paul II, millions of young people came to pray with Pope Benedict, and millions more are expected to be with Pope Francis this Sunday.
Why is this significant? What is the whole point of these World Youth Days? Officially, the idea of World Youth Day began in 1984 with His Holiness John Paul II at an International Jubilee of Youth on Palm Sunday in St. Peter's square at the close of the Holy Year of Redemption. Looking out at the crowd of over 300,000 young people from around the world, he said, "What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today's youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?"
It was at this gathering that the Holy Father entrusted to the youth what is now known as the World Youth Day Cross, to be carried throughout the world as a symbol of the love of Christ for humanity.
The first official World Youth Day was held in 1986 in Rome. The first international World Youth Day took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1987. Since then, every Palm Sunday has since been designated as a World Youth Day, alternating with international celebrations during the summer every two or three years, with local celebrations in the intervening years. Rio di Janiero marks the 12th International World Youth Day celebration, where the youth continue to answer the invitation of the Holy Father in huge numbers and carry home the message received there to be Christ's light to the world.
In Toronto, the last International World Youth Day at which John Paul II was present, he told the 800,000 gathered with him at the vigil, "When, back in 1985, I wanted to start the World Youth Days ... I imagined a powerful moment in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, who is eternally young, and could learn from him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people. This evening, together with you, I praise God and give thanks to him for the gift bestowed on the church through the World Youth Days. Millions of young people have taken part, and as a result have become better and more committed Christian witnesses."
This quote from Pope John Paul II neatly sums up the whole point of the World Youth Days. It is powerful and electrifying to see so many committed young Catholics in one place. We know how influential and persuasive peer pressure can be, especially for young people. In many local parish communities, young people who go to church might look around and see themselves surrounded by adults and senior citizens. Certainly the example of the mature members of the faith community is important, but young people might wonder if they are outside the mainstream of their generation if they fail to see many of their peers present in church. Certainly there is an heroic aspect to being a counter-cultural witness to faith in the sea of a secular society, but even heroes need inspiration and support. World Youth Days help to show young people that they are not alone in their friendship with Jesus and can help to reinforce their commitment to the Lord and to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Even though only a small percentage of our diocesan youth are attending this World Youth Day, I pray that they may return to central Illinois as a leaven of the faith, inspiring their peers by means of the graces received from their experience of a faith-filled pilgrimage. In this way, they will fulfill the theme of this year's World Youth Day, heeding the call of the Lord to "go and make disciples of all nations" (cf. Mt. 28:19).
May God give us this grace. Amen.