There are many reasons to go to World Youth Day. Lots of good reasons, and precious few bad ones. For me, though I had many motivations (getting to see the beauty of Poland, getting to walk and pray in Pope John Paul II's homeland) the thing I was looking forward to most was this: I wanted to see the reality of the universal Church.
It's a claim that is unique to Catholicism: the idea that the Church is universal, truly everywhere in the world, and in a real, concrete, visible way. This is not the "invisible" church, as it is sometimes called. Certainly there exists such a loose community, Christians of varying creeds and beliefs, different denominations and devotions to Christ, everywhere in the world. But Christ did not come to establish an invisible church. Why would He? Who would claim such a communion to be stronger than one which is visible, one which is truly and totally ONE? What family is strong that never eats together? No, a strong family shares meals and spends time together, as ONE, and the Catholic Church claims to be that family. They claim to be ONE and universal--one in creed, one in practice, one in Christ--at all places in the world. Such a bold claim is, if true, beautiful, and what better place to test this claim than at a worldwide youth gathering of faith?
So, in the wake of World Youth Day, let me assure you: the universal Catholic Church is REAL, and in more powerful ways than I expected.
UNIVERSAL IN ITS BELIEVERS
First, the Church is truly visibly universal, present everywhere in the world. At World Youth Day, the beautiful and diverse collection of flags represented in the crowds and gatherings, the sheer variety of chanting, singing, praying tongues around you...it was awe-inspiring. From America (40,000 pilgrims strong!) to Australia, Mexico to South Korea, Ukraine, Trinidad and Tobago, Israel, Canada, Slovakia, Ireland, South Africa, China, Syria, Panama, Tanzania, England, Brazil, the Philippines...all, and more, were there. The only comparable gathering known to mankind is the Olympics, and you have to qualify for the Olympics. You've already qualified for World Youth Day.
Not only is the Church as visibly universal as she claims, but she is also ALIVE. This was no solemn gathering; no, it was a celebration, a party, as ONE, filled with joy and zeal. The endless chants in every language, the smiles, the laughter; the inexhaustible joy of faith was evident at all points in the week. More important, however, was the oneness in DEVOTION to Christ and His Church. At Mass, when Pope Francis lifted up the host and proclaimed the words of consecration, three million people fell silent and knelt. I couldn't help but think of the many national anthems I've stood for at sporting events in my life. None are ever truly silent. There is always someone talking, someone who is not participating in the meaning of the moment. But in that Polish field on Sunday, the deep, reverential silence that fell across the millions gathered as the bread became Body…that was TRUE.
What a powerful indictment of the truth of Christ's Church! These are my brothers and sisters, my fellow folk, my family, even beyond our border differences, even beyond our linguistic barriers. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Christ, through his Church, offers us something found nowhere else: genuine, comprehensive communion with all the men and women of the world.
THE SECOND UNIVERSALITY
This was not, however, the most beautiful aspect of the Church's universality found in World Youth Day. No, I also found a universality I did not expect.
On Monday night, my first night in Poland, I got word of the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel in France. While Father Jacques' murder is especially unsettling because it feels close to home, the fact remains is that this is the very fear and persecution our brothers and sisters have been enduring in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq. There is a special fear that begins to creep in at the thought of Father Jacques' murder. They killed our priest. They walked into our church, in a holy place, and murdered our priest in an attempt to spread their message of fear and hatred.
And yet...as the week of celebration continued, and Father Jacques kept coming to mind, I realized: they've killed our priests before. This is no new tactic. They haven't always gone by the name of ISIS, but they have always gone by the names of Fear and Hate, and they have killed our priests before. Think of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, willingly starved and poisoned by the Nazis in the place of another at Auschwitz. Think of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, murdered by Communist agents. Think of Blessed Miguel Pro and his enduring final cry of “VIVA CRISTO REY!” as he was executed by the Mexican government. They have killed our priests before, over and over, on and on through the years, and what has happened?
The Church has carried on.
They have killed our priests, they have beaten our lay, they have terrified our children, they have desecrated our holy grounds, and yet the Church has carried on. Remember, their first move was to nail our God to a cross, and that didn't work. How could killing our priests be any more effective?
It is THIS universality in the Church, a timeless universality, a universality of hope, that I did not expect to discover, but was overjoyed to find. We are united not only by the zeal of our faithful but also by the blood of our martyrs, two thousand years of martyrs, and the promise that rises from that blood, a promise that declares that the Church carries on. Amidst the most paralyzing of fear and the greatest of sorrows, the Church offers us hope. Not a self-generated hope, one contrived in and by ourselves in a panicked attempt to hide from the darkness. Not an empty hope, but a real promise of hope, a hope that is true, a hope that there is a love that is greater than you, and greater than me, and stronger than fear. That hope, that love, is Jesus Christ.
THE COMMISSION OF WORLD YOUTH DAY
It is in this universality of the Church, the universality of hope in Christ's love and mercy, that we find the commission of World Youth Day. This hope is a gift, a unique blessing of comfort found in the Church, no matter what darkness the world brings. Because of this gift, the Church cannot sit in the wake of World Youth Day and simply revel in the majesty of her party, like a crowd of friends reminiscing jovially the morning after an exceptional bash. No, the joy and zeal of World Youth Day comes with a sending on mission (as every Mass does). Each of us has the beauty of this hope, but we have it by no means of our own, and it is not ours to keep to ourselves.
How blessed am I to have been raised in this party? How blessed am I to have parents who raised me Catholic, who took me to church, who taught me to pray? How blessed am I, too, that when I left my parents' home and wandered from the Church, there were men and women who pursued me with love and brought me back? How blessed am I that I have been surrounded, from my birth until now, by strong Catholic men and women who encourage me, challenge me, teach me, love me? How blessed am I to have the hope of Christ, in spite of me?
Not all are so blessed. Not all--in fact, very few--were raised by parents like mine. Not all have the resources I have, the supports I have, the security I have. And not all know the hope of the Church, which is Christ.
It's the mission to THESE that is the final message of World Youth Day. Without this commission, World Youth Day is merely a magnificent self-congratulatory pat on the back. Without this commission, World Youth Day becomes nothing more than an impressive feat of human organization skills. But WITH this commission, suddenly the week changes. Suddenly, the most important encounters of my trip are NOT the Catholics from Poland, or Korea, or Ukraine, or Panama, or Australia. No, the most important encounter of my trip becomes Brendon, the caring Protestant man I met while waiting for the bus at very beginning of my journey. It becomes Joseph, my wonderful Uber driver in Chicago. It becomes Shalhevet, the deeply kind and generous Israeli former-Orthodox Jew who put up with sitting next to me on a plane for 8 hours without complaint. It becomes the group of vacationing young adults (one from Ireland, one from the Netherlands, and one from Long Island) that I spent time in conversation with at my hostel. It's these encounters that become the heart of World Youth Day, because it gives us the opportunity to say:
"Listen, I know it's dark out, and I know it's scary, and I know it looks bad. But there's this party I'm going to. It's been going on for a very, very long time, and it's not stopping anytime soon. There's all sorts of people there, everyone you can imagine, and it'd be a lot better with you. It's not as scary there, either. It's actually pretty good. There's hope. You should come.
"Besides...the Guy throwing the party told me to invite you."