Faith Matters

The Catholic Church is alive globally and our young people are its lungs

How can the Catholic Church capture the energy of a major international event focused on faith and youth, asks Barry Matthews.

At the vigil each person present received a candle - a sight that will enlighten my heart for years to come

Being my first World Youth Day (WYD) I was unsure as to what to expect when I travelled to Poland with the Armagh Diocesan Youth Commission (ADYC).

The group numbered 103 and we would be among the 2000 pilgrims from Ireland who joined the 2.5 million young Catholics who responded to Pope Francis invitation to gather as a community of young faithful continuing the invitation of St Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI from previous WYDs.

It was fitting that the theme chosen for the festival of faith - blessed are the merciful - linked into the Jubilee of Mercy in no less a venue than the birth place of St Faustina and St John Paul II whose mission was one of spreading God's mercy to all.

Arriving in Krakow I was moved by the energy generated within our group during the singing of the Divine Mercy Chaplet - an energy that no words can describe but rather something deeper - young people united with each other in prayer at the level not of voice but of heart and soul.

From our first preparation day in February last I was sure that our group would be open to allowing the spirit to engage them at WYD, however, I could not have predicted the level of engagement. Krakow proved to me that the Church is alive globally and our young people are its lungs.

The opening Mass prior to the arrival of Pope Francis was the largest Mass I had to date attended - there were many highlights from seeing the flags of hundreds of countries and regions flying side by side in peace to the joy in people's eyes as they journeyed together singing together and praying together as one body in Christ.

The moment of Consecration at the Mass where all those present united in prayer was second only to the Eucharistic Vigil attended by Pope Francis on the Saturday evening before the gathered pilgrims slept overnight in fields preparing for the main World Youth Day Mass.

At the vigil, each person present received a candle - a sight that will enlighten my heart for years to come, the stillness of young adults in adoration and prayer kneeling alongside Pope Francis as he encouraged us to build our relationship with Jesus in the Eucharist.

Pope Francis reminded us of why we were gathered together around the Lord when he said "we are here today because the Lord has called us together. Our response to a world at war has a name: its name is fraternity, its name is brotherhood, its name is communion, its name is family".

We were reminded that as young adults we cannot merely vegetate our way through life but rather Pope Francis said "today, my friends, Jesus is inviting you, calling you, to leave your mark on life, to leave a mark on history, your own and that of many others as well".

World Youth Day has an established structure which includes daily Catechesis sessions in various languages. Armagh Archdiocese were privileged to facilitate one such session hosted by Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago who offered advice in the form of the Nike motto Just Do It when asked what advice he would give young people who were apprehensive about confession. Maybe this advice applies to us all.

Another striking moment occurred during the stations of the cross presided over by Pope Francis where the focus was n Jesus walking the road with those suffering addiction, refugees and those who life difficult, the stations were written specially and spoke directly to the injustices and inequality that we encounter in the world today.

The most notable highlight for me was the presence of so many young people. We cannot call it a counter-cultural event when near three million people gather, however, we can ask why these young people choose to spend their holidays and indeed their money following Christ than following the so called pop culture of such places as party islands of the Mediterranean?

Often we fail to see the depth of personality that our young people possess looking rather at stereotypical pre-conceptions and forcing them into a social class that fails to recognise their search for meaning in life and their journey to a deeper relationship with their creator and saviour Jesus Christ.

These young people are not `unusual' or anti-social - in fact they are quite the opposite. They know that their value comes from being children of God and our dignity is assured as members of His body. Filled with the Spirit the youth who at WYD filled Krakow with chants such as "Pope Francis on fire" and "walking with Pope Francis in Poland" knew how to enjoy themselves and have the freedom of spirit not to rely on such personality altering substances as alcohol or illegal drugs but rather relied on the common bond and unity of faith.

How as a Church can we capture some of the energy that we experienced in Krakow at WYD? This is a question that priests and people should ask every parish but we must not fail to acknowledge the groups already actively engaging with our youth and continue to encourage and support these. In our homes we must support and encourage our young people to get involved in building community and building their social and moral understanding through the fraternity offered by so many young committed Catholics who share the love of Jesus in their everyday lives.

It is not for parishes and groups alone to evangelise young people but supported by their families and faith communities' young people with the light of Christ in their hearts are the best witness of the faith to each other.

:: Barry Matthews is a deacon in the Armagh archdiocese

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Faith Matters