Archbishop Aquila, World Youth Day vet

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila speaks during the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Denver, Colorado, for World Youth Day 1993, celebrating Mass at the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization on August 15, 2013, in Denver, Colorado. The event coincided with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the pope’s final Mass at Cherry Creek State Park 20 years earlier. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila is what one might call a bit of a World Youth Day veteran.

Archbishop Aquila has not missed a single World Youth Day since he became a bishop in 2001. He was also a priest in Denver during Saint John Paul II’s iconic visit to the city for World Youth Day in 1993, and played an integral role in organizing the Holy Father’s visit. He welcomed Pope John Paul II upon his arrival to Denver and introduced him to some of the laypeople and clergy who were there to greet him. He was also responsible for the coordination of the liturgies and Masses.

So, for those keeping track, this year’s World Youth Day in Krakow will mark (at least) the seventh one Archbishop Aquila has attended.

That this year’s World Youth Day is taking place in Saint John Paul II’s homeland of Poland marks a special occasion, especially for Denver Catholics, not only because of the immeasurable impact he had on the Archdiocese of Denver, but also because it is the first World Youth Day to take place in Poland since John Paul II was canonized a saint.

At each World Youth Day, Archbishop Aquila has been invited to be a catechist bishop for the English speakers, which he called “a real privilege.” He said it’s fascinating to see the dialogue that takes place among the young people, and also the influence of the values of each culture present. It really speaks to the universality of the Church, which Archbishop Aquila said is his favorite aspect of World Youth Day.

“For myself, what I find really valuable is the gathering of young people from throughout the world, for them to visually see and encounter the universality of the Church, and for them to be able to meet other young Catholics who are all committed to the faith,” Archbishop Aquila said. “When one sees that kind of witness, it goes so against the culture of the world. The only thing that draws us together is Christ, and nothing else.”

COMING UP: Treasuring our youth

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Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, then Father Aquila, center, assists Saint Pope John Paul II with Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception during World Youth Day 1993 in Denver. (Photo by James Baca | Denver Catholic)

Can you imagine a sea of two million people gathered together in a field, united in prayer, in faith in Jesus Christ and energized by their encounters with one another? In a few short days, this will be the scene at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. If you are watching, you will see that faith and hope are alive in young people around the world.

At his papal inauguration ceremony, Pope St. John Paul II captured this well when he said to young people, “You are the future of the world, you are the hope of the Church, you are my hope.”

That is why I have gone to every World Youth Day since the Toronto gathering in 2002. As I look ahead to Krakow, I’m reminded of how important it is for me as a bishop to encourage that joyful encounter with Christ, to challenge young people to live the Gospel and to support them in their encounter with the Lord.

In today’s world, the difference between the values marketed to young people and those of Christ is clear. When he met with youth in Rome for the diocesan level World Youth Day last year, Pope Francis highlighted those starkly contrasting messages.

“Dear young friends,” he said, “in a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of ‘enjoying’ the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘forever,’ because we do not know what tomorrow will bring.”

Instead of giving in to the prevailing culture, the Holy Father urged young people to be “revolutionaries” who swim against the tide and who have “the courage to be happy.”

“I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.”

Today we don’t hear enough about the good things God is doing. But at a World Youth Day gathering, the reality that he is at work in the hearts of many young people is readily apparent. There is no other way to explain the joyful, peaceful, inspiring stories of grace in action that are heard when young people return home.

But in order for those stories to continue after World Youth Day, our young people must be continually supported and encouraged. The future health of our Church and society depends upon courageous young people who are willing to reject the destructive ideas promoted by secular society, and encounter Jesus through prayer, the Scriptures, the sacraments and in vibrant, Christ-centered friendships.

A life-changing encounter with Jesus in Poland must not be the end of the Christian journey; in fact, for many of our youth, it will be a new beginning. And it is up to us—you and me—to receive our youth when they return from the mountaintop and teach them through our prayers and our lives how to integrate that new beginning into a rich lifetime of being one of Jesus’ disciples.

It is essential that we each ask ourselves: “How can I encourage the young Catholics I know to deepen the experience of Christ and his Church they had in Krakow?” And if the young people you know didn’t make it to World Youth Day, then look for ways to help them meet Christ and experience the joy of meeting others who are alive in their faith.

We are now over halfway done with the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and this World Youth Day is taking place under the patronage of two saints of mercy—St. John Paul II and St. Faustina—with the theme, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

During the first days of the gathering, I will do my best to ensure that the experience of World Youth Day is a lasting one by presenting on the three themes of mercy. I have always found it to be a great blessing to participate in this way as a bishop, teaching young people, and responding to their questions with the truth of Jesus Christ and our faith.

Please join me in praying through the powerful intercession of these two mercy saints that our youth will experience the mercy of the Father, and have the courage to reject the falsehoods and false freedoms presented by a culture that does not know Jesus as Lord. Let us pray that they, and all people throughout the world, will encounter the mercy of the Father revealed in the face of Jesus and become merciful like our Lord.