Eric Thomason

“It was cool being a pilgrim,” says sixteen-year old Joe Higginson, “but it was cold sometimes and my feet hurt and we got lost like eighty-seven times

Such is a fitting beginning to this tale of the recently concluded 20th World Youth Day held in Cologne, Germany. More than just a “day,” World Youth Day is a week long festival of prayer, music, dance, and international hobnobbing.

But, as indicated above, World Youth Day is also a festival of grace that is only properly entered through the narrow door of the pilgrim’s way. For those who attend, it often becomes a seminal moment in their lives. For those who have never been, I hope this story of our little group of twenty-one youth and adults from the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, will inspire you to head to Sydney for the next World Youth Day in 2008.

Our pilgrimage began on August 12 with a five-hour drive to Seattle, where we would catch a plane to Europe the following day. For the next ten days, we would be pilgrims: sleeping on floors, living out of backpacks, and generally trusting in the providence of God for meals, directions on where to go, and the day’s schedule. As a friend of mine said during a previous World Youth Day: “I will never get this confused with vacation!”

In Seattle, after a free meal from the Knights of Columbus, we began to discuss and pray about the next day’s destination: Cologne, Germany. More specifically, we were heading to Cologne’s majestic Gothic cathedral, which houses the relics of the Magi. Like the Magi we had left behind the comforts and stability of home in order to have an encounter with God. How fitting that the theme of World Youth Day this year was: “We have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

Arriving in Cologne on August 14, the first thing we did was to go to the Cathedral steps and announce to the Lord that we indeed had come to worship Him. As the Magi had once entered the house at Bethlehem and found the Lord with Mary, His Mother, so we too turned our eyes to Mary, asking her to intercede for us over the course of the week. We asked that we might, like her, treasure the Word in our heart and respond “yes” to the Master’s call.

Mary did not disappoint.

The August 16 opening Mass of World Youth Day was an incredible experience. Using my well-honed World Youth Day skills (I have now been to four WYD’s …. and counting), I was able to get our group right up to the very front row. There we looked out on a crowd of over 100,000 enthusiastic Catholic youth singing songs, waving flags, and chatting with new friends from the over 190 countries represented there. It was quite an eye-opening experience for a group of young people from sparsely populated and culturally homogenous eastern Washington.

As we crammed onto the trains after Mass, I could see the light beginning to go on in the eyes of kids in our group as they realized: “We are not alone. It is cool to be Catholic.” Millie Duchow, age 16, said it well: “It moved me that almost one million people from all over the world were all there for the same reason and with the same love of Jesus Christ. That was powerful.”

The impossibly crowded World Youth Day trains, by the way, are a unique experience. They are part sing-along, part rugby scrum (you really have to shove your way on), and part social hour. The singing is the best part, everything from national anthems to hymns to chants of “Be-ne-det-to!” On the trains and in the streets our young people learned that faith is not meant to be private. We prayed the rosary, sang praise songs, and cheered for the pope as bewildered German bystanders just stared. No worries, we thought; we have taken over the city. Soon, we will take over the world!

The Holy Father arrived on August 18 after the festival had been running for two days. As he rode up the Rhine he met with various young people from around the world. Watching him on video, the gentleness of his manner and his ease with his guests were readily evident. Our group was waiting for him outside the Cathedral; we had been standing there for over nine hours. Our long wait paid off as we were very close to the front when Benedict arrived. Just as we had done a few days earlier, the first thing the pope did was to pray before the relics of the Magi. Sixteen-year-old Amanda Connell of our group summed up the experience well: “The long wait was completely worth the effort when Benedict walked through the doors of the cathedral, arms outstretched with love pouring out of his eyes for all of us.”

The next day our group visited the magnificent Romanesque church of St. Maria Himmelfarht (Church of the Assumption.) The church was one of WYD’s many “spiritual centers,” places of prayer for the young pilgrims. As we entered the church we experienced a palpable sense of grace. Nuns were chanting prayers, hundreds of young people filled the pews (and more had spilled out into the aisles), confessors lined the walls, and a priest was holding aloft Christ in the monstrance.

This is the real core of WYD: not the singing or dancing, not the flag-waving and meeting of cultures, not even the Holy Father. The core of WYD is Christ encountered in confession and in the Holy Eucharist.

Each WYD ends in the same way: all the participants hike to an outdoor venue on Saturday morning, the pope leads a prayer vigil that night, and then WYD concludes with a papal Mass the next morning. After a long week of crowded trains and being on our feet, it was quite a relief to be able to lay out our sleeping bags for all of Saturday and just talk, meet new people, pray, play cards, and sleep. It was not until sunset that the Holy Father arrived.

To begin the vigil of prayer, he blessed a new bell and rang it for the first time; the bell was named John Paul II. It was a well-chosen tribute to the founder of World Youth Day and the hero of so many gathered there that night. After the Holy Father gave an excellent address, noting especially that it is only the saints who really change the world, he led us in worship of the Blessed Sacrament. There we knelt–one million strong and candles lit–and positively bellowed out the Tantum Ergo as the Holy Father lifted high the One who draws all men to himself. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

After Mass the next day we hiked eight miles to a small town to catch our train. As we walked through the little hamlet, people came from their houses offering us water, apples, and cookies. They stared at us once again: who are these strange people who live out of backpacks, sleep on floors, and pray in the streets? Their answer will come over the next twenty years: we are the priests who found our vocation at World Youth Day; we are the religious who heard the Master’s call as we prayed before the World Youth Day cross; we are the Catholic married couples living in fidelity and openness to life because we have listened to John Paul the Great and his successors. If John Paul II’s theology of the body is a theological time bomb set to go off soon, World Youth Day is a pastoral time bomb with an equally short fuse.

Since I have had the privilege of attending four World Youth Days, many people have asked me to compare the two popes who have presided over the event. My first reply is to disregard those who say Benedict doesn’t have the same charisma as John Paul II; of course he doesn’t and, honestly, who does? Benedict has his own way, and it was very well received.

The main difference in their styles is that John Paul came as a prophet first and foremost; Benedict came primarily as a priest. Certainly, John Paul led us in prayer and certainly Benedict spoke well. But what was striking about John Paul at WYD was his rhetoric, his insight, his ability to create phrases that stay with you for years to come. What was striking about Benedict was his spirit of prayer, his kneeling before the shrine of the Magi, his leading us in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Both men have proven themselves up to the task of forming and inspiring the youth of the world. Both men are simply echoing the Forerunner, standing up and pointing for all to hear: “Behold, the Lamb of God! Behold him who takes away the sins of the world!” Young people, in the millions, are listening.