World Youth Day 2000: a personal account - first posted 29 August 2000

 VENICE - first posted 29 August 2000 - 1,370 words

"Young people of every continent, do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium!

"Your presence here at Tor Vergata has been beyond expectations. You have conquered Rome. Now it has become yours, because Peter is here. You are the young heart of the Church. Go into the world and bring peace."

With these words, the Holy Father ended the last Mass of the Youth 2000 celebrations in Rome. After the recitation of the Angelus, they told us the 15th World Youth Day will take place in Toronto in summer 2002.

More than two million of us came to Rome. The Italian press called us the "Pope-boys" or sometimes "Pope-hooligans".

The temperatures were Californian and our outfits colourful. We came waving thousands of jubilee banners over that ocean of heads representing our dioceses, countries, groups - so different yet all sharing the same spirituality. It felt like being at a huge football match. Even the Pope waved his arms up in the air, rhythmically, while we struck up the WYD 2000 anthem. More than one person said it felt like another Woodstock.

"You are my joy and my crown, young people of the world!" the Pope told us. And we were so happy to be there with him.

We had a great vantage point in front of the Basilica when we set out for St Peter's tomb. The behaviour of the of my fellow pilgrims and that of the civil forces was exemplary. Even the fire engineers were almost laughing as they hosed down the baking crowds.

Once we reached the Holy Door, there was no time to stop on the threshold to recite the two prescribed prayers composed by the Pope and by St Francis. There were too many pilgrims to let in: the rules were strict. Many pilgrims even mixed up the Holy Door (the one on the right facing the basilica) with other doors on the facade that had been left open to let the air circulate.

Once in, the loudspeakers recited constantly a reading from Mark (8, 27-29), the Creed, the renewal of the baptism promises and a prayer to the Virgin, who, with her "yes" to God's plans at the Annunciation, became "the first disciple."

At the Circo Massimo, an ancient Roman circus, which was the scene of the martyrdom of the first Christians, we celebrated the Feast of Forgiveness. This open-air sanctuary Mass was celebrated four times a day in Spanish, English and Italian; during the Penitential Act, the Church asked forgiveness before God once again for her past and present sins. Through the litanies, we remembered the first Christian martyrs who variously gave their life in this circus.

Those like me, who felt they were going to Rome to support the Pope in his successful papacy, somehow granting the Pope the privilege of our presence, felt utterly ashamed at the welcoming ceremony in St Peter's at the beginning of the week: the Pope thundered that before we had decided to come to Rome in search of Jesus, he had come in search of us.

At that point I felt I had received the gift of the Faith from him. To celebrate the jubilee means 'celebrating and meeting Jesus Christ, the Word who took flesh and came to dwell among us'. That is also the meaning of the anthem 'Emmanuel' meaning 'God with us'.

The rite of the vigil at Tor Vergata was probably the most thrilling moment of the WYD. It was when all the pilgrims finally gathered together in the same place, after getting up in the middle of the night to the out to walk various distances to reach the university of Tor Vergata campus.

The long celebration which began at sunset was made up of many salient moments. Each pilgrim symbolised the memory of the apostles and some contemporary Christian martyrs with a small candle mounted on a lamp: St Paul Miki and his companions, St Laurence Ruiz, St Maximilian Maria Kolbe and St Teresa Benedict of the cross (Edith Stein), among others.

There were the testimonies of four young people: for forgiveness during war, for religious freedom, for request of suspension of capital execution and, finally, for the difficulty of living the faith in contemporary society.

The presentation of the Gospel of St Mark to the five continents followed. The Pope then invited people to write a dedication on the Gospel of St Mark they had received with the Pilgrim's Bag, an inter-confession version in five languages, and give it as a present to one another to begin the new evangelisation of the Third Millennium. The rite was concluded by the communal confession of faith.

The address of the Holy Father during the vigil of prayer was prompted by the question Jesus made to his discipline "But who do you say that I am?" - "to make them aware of what was hidden in their own minds and hearts and to give voice to their conviction". The Pope said he considered the gathering in Rome as a "school of faith" for young people, sharing with others the difficulty which faith represents, maybe already feeling the temptation to abandon Jesus, choosing not to believe any more.

All the same, despite there being something of the apostle Thomas in everyone of the present, they can experience " a slowly maturing sense and conviction " of the commitment in faith". Today the young may not be asked to shed their blood like the first martyrs but certainly they will be asked, right from the vigil, to be faithful to Christ in the circumstances of everyday life, either the consecrated or the laity.

The Pope asked us to devote all our effort to build a new world based on love and forgiveness and on the constant struggle against injustice and physical and moral and spiritual poverty either in politics, culture or technology in order to serve humanity and its development.

Other subjects were considered during the homily at Mass the day after: talking about marital love, he warned the young on the danger of basing their happiness on another human being instead of on Jesus: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." He also encouraged us to consider vocations to consecrated life without being held back by doubts or fears, saying "yes" like the Virgin Mary without reserve. He gave the missionary mandate to us - and stressed that each one of us put the eucharist at the centre of our lives so that "the foolishness of the Cross" Jesus committed was not in vain.

Paraphrasing St Catherine of Siena, the Pope concluded his homily by promising us that "If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!"

Certainly judging from the temperature in Rome during the week, it seemed the pilgrims have already put the teaching into practice. Crowds of pilgrims had to be constantly hosed with water to keep cool and were strongly encouraged to drink water to avoid dehydration.

The WYD was not only praying in the traditional sense. Every space in Rome was taken up by different gatherings - 'Incontragiovani'.

There were dances performed by the Syrian Christian Group with middle eastern folk dances and Syrian Arabic choirs. There was music from English singer-songwriter Sal Solo, Italian Fr Giosi Cento, the wheelchair-bound band Ladri di Carrozzelle and Italian singing star Angelo Branduardi. Street theatre shows included a wonderful performance by the Rome-based lay community Piccola Pietra.

Many of us only saw the Pope from a great distance - the size of a white confetti stuck at the centre of the Arch-stage. Nevertheless, what we have brought home are wonderful memories and the seeds of faith he started planting in the first WYD back in 1984. Now it's time for the young to come down Mount Tabor and back to the world where we will be tempted and tried but where we have to be witnesses to what we saw and received in Rome. Its time to roll up our sleeves to work for the Lord.

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