Faith, hope and love : At World Youth Day, Pope Demonstrates What It Means To Be Young

By Valerie Striker

You are young and the Pope is old.” His words echoed across Downsview Park, raising a cry of protest from his young audience. “The Pope is young! The Pope is young!” they chanted.

He had done it again. Although, as he pointed out, “82 … is not the same as 22 or 23,” Pope John Paul II endeared himself to his young flock at the 17th World Youth Day in Toronto, a tradition started by this incredible shepherd in the mid-80s.

All week, members of the media covered the actions of the frail, white-haired pontiff. They marveled at his spirit of determination. They were in awe that half-million young people from the four corners of the globe had sacrificed so much time, money, and even literal sweat and blood to be with him. And they wondered at the electrifying thrill he evoked whenever he was in our midst.

As youthful pilgrims, we sensed the answer – this man, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church on earth, loves us. It is a love that is unconditional, a love that comes from Christ and manifests itself in this stooped but powerful figure through his presence, his wave, his smile and even in the way he addressed us last week – as “My dear young friends.”

And we love him.

It didn’t matter that when he arrived at Exhibition Place, the main site of the week’s activities, we were hundreds of yards from his “popemobile,” or that we saw him as just a speck on the stage. Some of us were overcome by the simple fact that he was there. With us.

Through smiles and tears, our shouts of “John Paul Two, we love you!” joined the multilingual cheers of young people from all over the world.

“He’s so cute! He’s the cutest old guy I’ve ever seen,” said St. Pete’s junior Audra Ridilla, 16, as she watched him wave and speak on the screen in front of us.

Missy Fitz, 15, a Galion High School sophomore, was struck by the sheer number of people who attended World Youth Day: Starting out at more than 200,000, the crowd reached its climax at Sunday’s closing Mass at an estimated 800,000.

“There wouldn’t be such a turnout no matter what president it was,” Fitz said.

I had to wonder if anyone would go through what many of us did for any other human figure.

Pilgrims slept in an assortment of schools, armories, gymnasiums and host family homes. Our group was lucky enough to have warm showers; we heard that some groups used hoses outside.

The food, as one friar said on EWTN coverage of the event, was “fit for a pilgrimage.” After downing tuna spread on crackers for at least three meals and suspiciously trying hot dishes in all shades of red and brown, we longed for something more “American.” (They did eventually give us Lays potato chips and sandwiches one evening.)

And then, while our group may have been tempted to let a bit of inevitable friction between group members – or even the bugs in the grass at Downsview or the early morning downpour – get under our skin, a friend put things in perspective when he shared the pitfalls of being the second group from the stage.

To get that coveted spot, his group had departed from its hotel at midnight Friday night, hiked four hours to Downsview, then sent its fastest runners to stake out a spot in ankle-deep mud and argue with another Catholic group trying to preserve the space. Tighter security in that section and the availability of only a few main gates made it all but impossible to go anywhere quickly, and the crowds stalled for almost an hour at one point.

Sure, they had great seats and got news footage, but along with that my friend will probably always remember not being able to use the port-a-pots or get fresh water for hours at a time, washing his hands in mudpuddles, walking to communion barefoot through the mud and seeing people in his group make emergency visits to the hospital and first-aid stations.

Still, hot, sick or hungry, I don’t think there was a person there who would have traded the experience for anything.

Saying he enjoyed the “unique experience it provided,” St. Pete’s senior Damon Chengelis, 17, said the trials had given him a feeling of accomplishment.

World Youth Day was “like nothing else in the world,” Chengelis added, referring to how the event brought hundreds of cultures from around the world together, all with “that common ground.”

“The whole week was worth it,” agreed St. Pete’s senior Landree Rennpage, 17.

Indeed, World Youth Day was more than “just” seeing the pope – John Paul II knew that as well as we did when he told us he knew we were seeking happiness, and when he challenged us repeatedly to follow Christ.

Rennpage remembered how John Paul II told his young crowd to “flavor the seas of the world with the salt of the Gospel,” stressing this year’s theme that was based on Christ’s command to be the “light of the world and the salt of the earth.”

I admit there was lurking in the back of our minds the probability we would never again set foot in the same city as Pope John Paul II, and this made his presence there more potent for all of us.

“It’s like I can’t wait … to go to heaven,” said St. Pete’s senior Anne Modic, 17. After the welcoming ceremony, which she described as “awesome,” Anne said that given the excitement and emotion of seeing the pope, she couldn’t help but ask herself what it’s going to be like meeting Christ.“It’s incredible.”

Anne’s mother, Diana, had come with Anne and her 12-year-old sister Margaret on the pilgrimage. During the car ride home, she asked her daughters if they knew that the pope loved them.

“All they could say was ‘Yes,’” she recalled.

“It was just incredible,” she said, explaining how the pope could just come into a crowd of people “and your heart was just filled with the love he has for you.” “That’s how Jesus loves you,” she had told her daughters. “That’s how people flocked to Jesus” – because they knew of the love he had for them.

The pope’s words, which only began to noticeably slur as the week-long celebrations ended, rang out clearly through most of his addresses, during which he never failed to speak to the world’s youth in many different languages. One Toronto paper recounted how he playfully rhymed, “Long live the pope, long live youth,” in his native Polish.

“The next 50 or 60 years of the Church is right here in this place. The Holy Father knows that,” seminarian Paul Ward said, commenting on how being around young people seemed to have a rejuvenating effect on the aging pontiff.

During our trip, our leader, Tim Ferris, defined a pilgrimage as a journey to see the great things God has done for us.

Concluding with that in mind, I can’t help but thank God for Pope John Paul II, a great servant of the Church who through good health and bad, young age and old, has shown us Catholic youth that to find life in Christ – and to take to heart the call to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth – is to remain forever young.

This story originally appeared in the Telegraph-Forum of Bucyrus, Ohio, a Gannett newspaper and a member of the Newspaper Network of Central Ohio. It is reprinted here with permission.