Treasuring our youth

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.

COMING UP: Priest to World Youth Day pilgrims: ‘The Lord is waiting for you there’

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The Holy Father invited and they are going.

So said Father Giuseppe Fedele, who oversees the Neocatechumenal Way in Colorado. Some 300 of the catechumenate’s members will be journeying to World Youth Day in Poland at the end of the month.

“There is a call from Peter, the Holy Father Francis, to go,” Father Fedele said, referring to the pope’s message last August when he became the first pilgrim to register for the event and invited youths to attend.

The Way group is the largest from the Archdiocese of Denver going to the July 25-31 international Catholic youth celebration in Krakow, which in keeping with the current Year of Mercy is themed, “‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’” (Mt 5:7).

This is the first time a World Youth Day has taken place during a jubilee year.

“The Lord is waiting for you there,” Father Fedele told the Way pilgrims after Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila blessed them June 24 at the St. John Paul II Center in south Denver. His words echoed those of Pope Francis in his World Youth Day 2016 message.

“Dear young people … Jesus is waiting for you,” he wrote. “He has confidence in you and is counting on you!”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, right, and Father Guiseppe Fidele, right, address World Youth Day pilgrims of the Neocatechumenal Way during a blessing and send-off ceremony June 24 at the St. John Paul II Center in Denver. Some 300 Neocatechumenal Way pilgrims are travelling to Krakow, Poland for World Youth Day, representing one of the larger groups going from the Archdiocese of Denver. (Photo by Aaron Lambert | Denver Catholic)

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila blesses World Youth Day pilgrims of the Neocatechumenal Way during a send-off ceremony June 24 at the St. John Paul II Center in Denver. Some 300 Neocatechumenal Way pilgrims are travelling to Krakow, Poland for World Youth Day, representing the largest group going from the Archdiocese of Denver. (Photo by Aaron Lambert | Denver Catholic)

Like the pope, Father Fedele and Archbishop Aquila urged the pilgrims to be a light for the world so desperately in need of Christ’s love and mercy. This, too, is a reason for going on the pilgrimage, they said.

“To give to society, especially to Europe, which is becoming more and more secularized, a hope that is beautiful,” explained Father Fedele. “That they may see that it is joyful to believe in God and that there is another way to live as a youth. That you can be happy following the Lord.”

The Way youths will evangelize by announcing the good news in public squares and giving witness to what Jesus Christ has done in their lives.

In addition to attending the vigil and Mass with the Holy Father at the Field of Mercy, located southeast of central Krakow, the Way pilgrims will visit Terezin, a concentration camp outside of Prague that was run by Nazi Germany from 1941-1945, and the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, enshrined at Jasna-Gora Monastery, the national shrine of Poland located in Czestochowa.

They will also attend an international vocational meeting with the initiators of the Way, during which youths will be invited to answer a call to priesthood or consecrated life and families to go on mission to de-Christianized areas of the world.

“God has a plan for (everyone),” Father Fedele said. He has a mission for (everyone). The whole purpose of Christian life is to discover what that mission is, the plan God wants to open for you.”

Not only is Christ waiting for the pilgrims in Poland, Father Fedele said, but he desires that they be the source of an encounter for others with him.

“God wants to have a personal experience with each one of us that can really change our life,” he said, referring to the joy of new life in Christ that transforms us from being self-centered and empty to selfless and loving. “[Then] everything has a meaning, even suffering.”