My reflections as a World Youth Day Pilgrim: the week Toronto glowed

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Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message. 

Malcolm Muggeridge

It’s appropriate that the Sunday before World Youth Day – a week when hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world will gather in Madrid and be witnesses to, and of, our Catholic faith – that we are reminded at Mass that God’s house ” shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.   (Isaiah 56, 1:7)

10 years ago, I was a pilgrim from St Clement’s Parish to the XVII World Youth Day celebrations here in Toronto.  It was the last World Youth Day attended by its founder and continued inspiration (now) Blessed Pope John Paul II.   In 2001, Pope John Paul II gave this message  to young people preparing to come to our city,

“Dear young friends, Toronto is waiting for all of you who can make it! In the heart of a multi-cultural and multi-faith city, we shall speak of Christ as the one Saviour and proclaim the universal salvation of which the Church is the sacrament. In response to the pressing invitation of the Lord who ardently desires “that all may be one” (Jn 17:11), we shall pray for full communion among Christians in truth and charity.

Come, and make the great avenues of Toronto resound with the joyful tidings that Christ loves every person and brings to fulfilment every trace of goodness, beauty and truth found in the city of man. Come, and tell the world of the happiness you have found in meeting Jesus Christ, of your desire to know him better, of how you are committed to proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth!

May this first World Youth Day of the new millennium bring to everyone a message of faith, hope and love!”

John Paul II’s words were prophetic – one year later we were a city transformed.  The intrinsically human message of faith, hope and love became a palpable reality in the streets of downtown Toronto.   Our city welcomed the global pilgrims with open arms and embraced World Youth Day.   The distinctive pilgrim red backpacks were everywhere, and invited conversation with people from all walks of life who wanted to know what was going on, and share in the visible enthusiasm of those around them.   Subway cars, buses and streetcars were filled with smiling morning commuters talking and singing (acoustic guitars were a must for many groups!) with global pilgrims.

Torontonians kept telling me that they were amazed so many young people could gather again and again, day and night, without incident, and indeed, that the pilgrims had brought something wonderful to our city which they hoped would remain.   Of course, what they were witnessing – what we were all witnessing – was the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.  That fire has remained and can be seen in many places in our city, including the dynamic youth leadership of the Office of Catholic Youth (located at the Newman Centre, UofT), and the work and witness of the Canadian Salt & Light Catholic Network (its name was, of course, inspired by WYD2002).

 Remember this.  When people choose to withdraw far from a fire, the fire continues to give warmth, but they grow cold.  When people choose to withdraw far from light, the light continues to be bright in itself, but they are in darkness.  This is also the case when people withdraw from God.                                  

                                                                St. Augustine

Yesterday, after Mass at St Basil’s, a fellow parishioner introduced me to her daughter and her daughter’s friend – both of whom were leaving shortly for Madrid.  I shared with them that Fr. Decker’s homily on the readings and Gospel, his statement that we must break down the barriers we erect between ourselves and others, to remember that God’s house is a place of prayer for all people, brought to mind for me my time as a pilgrim in Toronto.  It felt to me then like we were building bridges and tearing down walls, and that the clear joy and faith in action that came from loving God had opened the hearts and minds of some that had been previously closed.   It is something we must rekindle here and in a larger western world that is generally closing its public spaces, and public dialogue, from the inclusion of God.   As Blessed Mother Teresa reminded us, “if you want a love message to be heard, it has got to be sent out.  To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.”

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical entitled ‘God is Love’,

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.  John’s Gospel describes that event in these words:  “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should…have eternal life.”

To be a faithful Catholic IS to love.  We are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ – God’s love incarnate (‘in human form’).  It is a message for which we must continue to bear witness if it is to continue bear fruit in the world.  And if we truly love God then let’s remember to spend some time every day talking with, and listening for, God.  “Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.”   (St Teresa of Avila)

WDY2002 – a spiritual pilgrimage that will remain with me a lifetime.

God bless and watch over all those in Madrid this week.

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