As I have been seeing all the posts from my friends on social media as well as some of the videos posted by priests and figures such as Bishop Robert Barron, about World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, I can’t help to remember the fond memories that I have from the two World Youth Day events I was blessed to attend years ago.
When I was nineteen years old, I attended my first World Youth Day, which was held in Denver, Colorado in 1993. Our young adult group from St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church sponsored a pilgrimage for us to attend. Father Pete Rossa, Pastor of St. Bernadette Catholic Church here in the Diocese of Phoenix was on that trip before he discerned Holy Orders. Our young adult leader at the time, Bobby Kloska, got us so fired up about attending and seeing the great Pope John Paul II.
The first time we saw Pope St. John Paul II was in Mile High Stadium while sitting high in the upper deck. The experience was so vivid – it has been stamped in my mind forever. I can still remember it all perfectly. I recall someone that day saying that John Paul II was being flown in by a helicopter. I remember hearing in the distance military helicopters, which quickly made their way to the stadium. After flying over the stadium once, they landed in some landing area where the Holy Father deplaned.
Ten to fifteen minutes later, Pope St. John Paul II came into the stadium riding in the “Pope Mobile.” Once he appeared, the entire stadium went crazy…I mean absolutely bananas!! We all started cheering and were screaming at the top of our lungs for Pope John Paul II. The chant of “JP 2, We Love You…JP 2, We Love You!” begin quietly but quickly grew into a great crescendo. The Pope Mobile made a lap around the stadium, parked, and then the opening ceremonies began.
The World Youth Day experience is fantastic because you witness so many young people from around the world praising Jesus Christ and being attentive to his Vicar. World Youth Day really showed me for the first time in my life the universality of the Catholic Church. Twenty-three years later, I still cherish the experience deep in my heart.
Pope St. John Paul II said at the closing Mass of World Youth Day 1993,
“Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel (Cf. Rom 1,16). It is the time to preach it from the rooftops (Cf. Mat 10,27). Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis’.”
The second World Youth Day I attended was in Rome, Italy during the Jubilee Year of 2000. I was twenty-six years old at the time and the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Litchfield Park, Arizona. There were 22 of us (teens, young adults, and adult chaperones) on the pilgrimage which first visited Turin, Italy, where we were blessed to see the famous Shroud of Turin.
Out of the two World Youth Day experiences I witnessed, it was by far the best experience. First, I had never been so close to Pope St. John Paul before, and second, my sister was with me on the trip.
The first time we saw John Paul II up close was when the Pope Mobile drove right by our group on the Via dei Fori in the heart of Rome amidst the Roman ruins and the Colosseum. I could have leaned over the railing and the touched the Pope Mobile it was so close. I remember we were all in tears of joy as he drove by us. It’s been said that being so close to a living saint would bring tears to your eyes. Even though he drove by us quickly, the fact still remains, we were all brought to tears.
The second time we saw John Paul II up close was when we walked to Tor Vergata for the Evening Prayer Vigil and closing Mass on Sunday morning. As we were walking in, I remember my sister was right next to me, and the Pope Mobile was right in front of us. We were in a crowd of 2 million people trying to catch a glimpse of the future Polish saint. I can still remember the beauty of the Vigil and the Mass on the field at Tor Vergata. It was yet another great experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Pope St. John Paul II said at the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2000,
“Dear friends, when you go back home, set the Eucharist at the centre of your personal life and community life: love the Eucharist, adore the Eucharist and celebrate it, especially on Sundays, the Lord’s Day…May every community always have a priest to celebrate the Eucharist! I ask the Lord therefore to raise up from among you many holy vocations to the priesthood.”
As I read the social media posts and witness the events happening in the home of the great Polish Saint, I remember the impact the World Youth Day events had on my own life and faith in Jesus Christ. Tonight I watched a short clip from Word on Fire where Bishop Barron explained how he and a few others had dinner with the friends of John Paul II when he was their parish priest. He said they were the genesis of World Youth Day since they were the first youths he evangelized.
Even though my time has passed to attend such events for the youth of the world, I encourage those who have never been and are between the ages of 16-35 to go to the next World Youth Day, which will be announced at the end of this years World Youth Day.
Please keep all the pilgrims attending World Youth Day in your prayers for the rest of the week. Please pray for their safety and the conversion of hearts.
Pope St. John Paul II…Pray for Us.