Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Living in Joy": A Reflection on World Youth Day 2013

It ends today, the 2013 edition of World Youth Day. What started with pomp and beauty on Tuesday in Rio wraps up after nearly a week. The late Pope John Paul II created World Youth Day in 1984, to celebrate the manner in which young people embrace Christian values: passionately, joyfully, exuberantly. The event draws young people from different parts of the world to a central location every two or three years and reminds them to focus on Christ's redeeming love. There've been 14 editions so far of the event, all of which have been well attended. World Youth Day, like the Olympics or FIFA World Cup events, is a global peace ceremony that highlights the sweet reward of international harmony: different flags blowing in the breeze; different dresses sported by ethnically diverse groups of young people; different languages spoken in small-group conversations; different foods eaten in diverse informal canteens - young people collect themselves in a unity of diversities.
It's no accident that Blessed John Paul II was the one to start such an event. Like the World Youth Day, the late pope was a man for all peoples. He spoke many international languages; related well with diverse sects and communities; traveled extensively round the world, and was an eternal fountain of youth, with his abundance of charisma and goodwill. He was well loved around the world. By a parish I stayed at for eight months in Chicago, there is a huge statue of Blessed John Paul II and, every once in a while, you could see people stopping at it just to pray or to admire or to reflect on the man, that towering personality whose enduring optimism and vibrant faith has forever changed the world and left for it a lasting legacy.
Since his death in 2005, the late pope's successors, Benedict XVI and Francis I, have continued the World Youth Day tradition. Francis was elected pope only this year, and so this is his first WYD. Interestingly enough, it is taking place in the region of the globe he hails from. On the day he became leader of the more than 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, he teased his brother Cardinals for going to pick him "from the other end of the world," rather than from Europe as had been the usual. His pontificate has been a burst of fresh air for Christendom. One of its characteristics is humility. Francis has been universally observed to be the humble pope: washing and kissing dirty feet on Holy Thursday; riding the bus with his Cardinal colleagues; carrying his own bag on trips; living in relatively simple lodgings - the pope has continually spread the message of detachment from worldly wealth, and has encouraged the world to think afresh in those terms. He has also spoken and written fervent messages of hope and joy.

In his homily at the opening mass of the 2013 WYD celebrations, which he delivered at Aparecida, the pope addressed three themes: hopefulness; openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy. With regard to hopefulness, Francis, using the image of the dragon and the woman as contained in Rev 12:13a, exhorted the world's youth to sustain within themselves an attitude of optimism in spite of the many troubles and challenges life makes them shoulder. Just as the dragon was unable to destroy the woman and her child, the hardships of life, however painful they may be, should not overwhelm the youth who have fixed their sights on Christ. Rather, by "knocking on Mary's door," the youth will enter into the redeemer's presence and receive the hope that is necessary for mastering the vicissitudes that threaten to banish peace from the human heart.

The pope furthermore enjoined the world's youth to remain open to the prospect of being surprised by God. Borrowing from the event of Jesus' new-wine miracle at the Wedding of Cana, the pontiff inspired us to persevere even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations, trusting in the power of God to surprise us by turning such situations around. As long as we do not close our minds to God's desire to save us, we may rest assured that the raging storms of life will not drown us in their fury. Though the world's youth today face untold hardships: self-hatred; body-image issues; depression; anxiety; dissipation, and addiction to mention but a few, they can find relief in the knowledge that God has the power to extract good from the bleakest of situations, surprising us daily with the divine splendor and grace (2 Cor 12:9).

More so, Francis encouraged all young people to live in joy. He said: "Dear friends, if we walk in hope, allowing ourselves to be surprised by the new wine which Jesus offers us, we have joy in our hearts and we cannot fail to be witnesses of this joy. Christians are joyful, they are never gloomy. God is at our side." He went further to say that our potential for living joyful lives is increased by the help of Mother Mary's prayers, and by the church's commitment to reflecting Christ's own joy to the world. This joy will envelop us if we continue in our love for Jesus, the beautiful son of Mary, without whom there is "no hope, no love, no future." The pope concluded the homily with these words: "Dear friends, we have come to knock at the door of Mary’s house. She has opened it for us, she has let us in and she shows us her Son. Now she asks us to 'do whatever he tells you' (John 2:5). Yes, dear Mother, we are committed to doing whatever Jesus tells us! And we will do it with hope, trusting in God’s surprises and full of joy. Amen."

In another homily he delivered at Copacabana Beach, Francis called on young people around the world to "put on faith," so as to become models of sanctity to the people around us. The pope recalled Peter's exclamation at the Transfiguration, when in awe he said, "It is good for us to be here" (Matt 17:4a). In the same way, through faith, we can emulate Jesus and be transformed into glorious images of the adorable Christ. Bringing peace to the troubled; channeling healing to the ailing; giving alms to the needy; building up the body of Christ - we can serve the world and all its peoples in the many ways Christ teaches us to, when we strive to be like him and copy his behavior. Indeed, in Francis' own words, "our very being is transformed; our way of thinking and acting is made new, it becomes Jesus’ own, God’s own, way of thinking and acting. During the Year of Faith, this World Youth Day is truly a gift offered to us to draw us closer to the Lord, to be his disciples and his missionaries, to let him renew our lives."

And so the WYD Celebrations 2013 draw to a close. The dancing and talking and praying halt awhile; people will begin to return to their homes to reflect on what has transpired. Hopefully they will realize that what they have attended is not a jamboree or a large party. They have instead been to a mountain top, secluded there with Jesus. They have prayed with and learned from him, and so have become transformed into other Christs, ready to take the message of renewal to the ends of the world, making disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19) and striving in their own lives to be hopeful, open to God's surprise and continually joyful. I wish I had been there myself. Anyway, thanks to Facebook, I get to live the virtual reality of the event especially through the pictures a friend of mine posts of his experiences there, in all of which he is smiling. When school resumes for the fall on August 26 and I see him again, I hope to say to him, "Emanuel, tell me everything - how exactly was it?" I wonder what he will tell me then.

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