The Salt of the Earth, the Light of the World

Author: Cardinal J. Francis Stafford


Cardinal J. Francis Stafford
President, Pontifical Council for the Laity

Cardinal Francis Stafford, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, writes on World Youth Day

World Youth Day (WYD), initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985, is unprecedented in Church history. In their ensemble they have been unique in their purpose and in the number of young people walking the new pilgrim paths of the world. Not even the immense crowds responding to the call of Pope Urban II in the 11th century can compare. In 1095 at Auvergne, France, the Pope appealed to the 100,000 persons before him to deliver the Christians in the East from the new perils that confronted them. It was an event commemorated by a 19th century bronze statue of the Pope in the Vatican Gardens preaching his message. His audience was overwhelmingly composed of "nobles, knights and lesser folk" and was motivated by the Pope's appeal for military support of the Byzantine Church and Empire in regaining territories in Asia Minor, Syria and the Holy Land. During the 1995 World Youth Day in Manila 5,000,000 young people—said to be the largest gathering ever on the planet—responded to the call of Pope John Paul II.

And his vision differs from that of Pope Urban II. In the 1985 Apostolic Letter to the Youth of the World, Pope John Paul II described the purpose of each World Youth Day by challenging the young people to be engaged in a holy conversation. He envisioned it to be a conversation with Jesus similar to the dialogue he had with the young man (Mk 10,17-22, Mt 19,16-22, Lk 18,18-23). The young people today were urged to ask the same question of Jesus, first directed to him by the rich young man: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?". The young man was aware that his existence had a destiny which went beyond his earthly life. He had a growing consciousness within his heart of a yearning for the transcendent.

To be aware of the thirst for God is to be awakened to the dignity ofthe human being

Through World Youth Day the Pope hopes that each young person will be alert to that uniquely human yearning implanted in every heart. Why? To be aware of this desire for God is to be awakened to the transcendent dignity of the human person. The Pope further elaborated on his motive for inaugurating World Youth Day: "Dear young friends! The response which Jesus gives to his questioner in the Gospel is addressed to each one of you. Christ asks about the state ofyour moral awareness, and at the same time he questions you about the state ofyour conscience". Today's young people need the time, space and occasion to hear Jesus' response to the young man's question.

From Denver in 1993, to Manila in 1995, Paris in 1997 and Rome in 2000 to Toronto in 2002, the same fundamental vision has guided the Pope. He wishes the young people of the world to meet one another, to pray with one another, to receive catechesis from their bishops, and finally to meet with him during the Vigil on Saturday night and the Eucharist on Sunday morning. All of these are ways of engaging the young people in a holy conversation with Jesus.

Courtesy has been the keynote of these steep pilgrimages. The young people usher one another through their journey with singing. They greet one another with deference. They eagerly identify themselves to strangers. They readily respond to questions and supply helpful information. They are united in the bonds of mutual goodwill. There is an exchange of prayer and of love in the higher form of charity. During the pilgrimage they embrace hardship and even pain. These young men and women do not seem to have lost their childhood to "the light of common day". These are essential experiences for the future leaders of the new century.

Many WYD innovations have assisted the young pilgrims in their holy conversation, their sacra conversatio, with Jesus. The Vatican art exhibit, begun at Denver, has continued at each site. This year's exhibition at Toronto, Images of Salvation, is of the highest quality yet, both artistically and religiously. Its uniquely theological/aesthetic form makes visible the theme of this year's pilgrimage, "You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!".

Each World Youth Day has made its own unique contribution to pastoral practice. The Holy Father emphasized the importance of having as many bishops as possible giving the days of catechesis. These sessions began at Denver and have involved at least 260 bishops as catechists during each WYD. This pastoral experience has strengthened their confidence in proclaiming to young people the Paschal Mystery.

Moreover, after 1993 WYD Denver, American young people have enthusiastically embraced the great Catholic tradition of pilgrimage. Most experienced it for the first time in the journey to Denver and the rendezvous with the Holy Father near Butterfly Hill in Cherry Creek State Park. One Coloradan wrote to me several years later about that pilgrimage, "Butterfly Hill [was] where Colorado gave the world a measure of hope".

'In your light we see light’

The summer sun has played an important role in these pilgrimages. The young people have experienced a spiritual journey from a place of muted light, like the Saturday evening Vigil, to one in which they begin to perceive that all created things have their splendour in the light of God. "In your light we see light".

Many have become more conscious of their need to be purged from the stain of sin. They are aware of the coarsening of the moral fibre and the clouding of the mind and imagination by the habit of sin. The 1997 Paris WYD developed a primary focus, explored more deeply in subsequent years, on the Christian's journey to light through the Sacraments of Initiation. The young people identify more easily with St Jerome's description of the Christian's experience of emerging from the baptismal waters, "As long as we were in the world, our eyes looked into the abyss and we lived in filth. After we were rescued from the waves, we began to look upon the sun and look at the true light. Confused in the presence of so much joy, we say: 'Hope in God, for I shall praise him, in the presence of my Savior and my God"'.

The pilgrimage of the Youth Day Cross in Canada has impacted Catholic life and identity

The 1997 Paris World Youth Day also developed the so-called "days in the diocese" in which young people were exposed to the Catholic life within various dioceses of the host country. This has continued and expanded at each subsequent World Youth Day.

Rome 2000 had its own unique contributions. The most significant was the renewal of the sacrament of Reconciliation at the Circus Maximus. In NovoMillennio ineunte the Holy Father makes reference to the positive experience of this sacrament during the Holy Year: many faithful returned to the practice of the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Roman WYD organizers used a creative approach which proved to be very effective in renewing the sacrament. It has been studied and reflected upon.

Toronto 2002 has already made its own creative contributions. The Pilgrimage of the Holy Cross throughout that vast country has been one. For the past year its journey has impacted Canadian Catholic life and identity. It was originally entrusted to the world's young people by Pope John Paul II in 1985.

From Denver to Toronto the young pilgrims of the Catholic world have come to a new reality through the invitation of the Holy Father to join him on a WYD pilgrimage. The love that governs all things is now conceived by them only in light of the all-encompassing love of the Cross.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 July 2002, page 7

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