This evening I was watching the live feed from Rio as Pope Francis officially opened the 28th World Youth Day on Copacabana beach, renamed by the Twitterati as #Popacabana for the duration of the week. After the Pater Noster (sung beautifully to the Solemn Anaphora Tone, for those interested in that sort of thing), and the final blessing, that great anthem of World Youth Day, Jesus Christ you are my life, struck up. Immediately my mind leapt back to those wonderful days in Madrid a few years ago, and I quickly fired-off a text to a Norwegian priest-friend who is in Rio, reminiscing and promising prayers from England for the event.
Live feed. Twitter. SMS. World Youth Day has become an amazing Catholic moment in the social media world, and we have almost missed the significance of what is going on here. As I type this, #PontifexRio, #PapaFrancisco, and #Copacabana, have all been trending worldwide on Twitter, not just from on the ground in Brazil, but from across the world, as young Catholics enter into World Youth Day like never before.
In his message for WYD this year, Pope Benedict XVI (as he was then) spoke specifically about the need for young people to engage a ‘missionary commitment’ in the area of social communications. As well as quoting his Message for the 43rd World Communications Day in 2009, he asked young WYD pilgrims, who “have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent'”, and to “[l]earn how to use these media wisely”. It seems to have worked.
The Holy Father also asked the young pilgrims to take on a particular responsibility for what we might call ‘Peer Evangelization’. Unwittingly echoing his successor’s own name, Francis, Pope Benedict said, “Proclaiming Christ is not only a matter of words, but something which involves one’s whole life and translates into signs of love”. Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary. He also recognized that this is hard; that for all of us, but particularly for young people living in a culture of indifference, bringing Christ to those closest to us is a challenge, but also the greatest gift we can bring them.
In his opening remarks to the people of Brazil, Pope Francis said, “I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ!”. This is the same for us. Pope Benedict says, “Never forget that the first act of love that you can do for others is to share the source of our hope”. More than that, though, he challenges the young pilgrims – and all of us – by asking: “I would like each of you to ask yourself: Have I ever had the courage to propose Baptism to young people who have not received it? Have I ever invited anyone to embark on a journey of discovery of the Christian faith? Dear friends, do not be afraid to suggest an encounter with Christ to people of your own age. Ask the Holy Spirit for help. The Spirit will show you the way to know and love Christ even more fully, and to be creative in spreading the Gospel”.
A few years ago, on a course I attended, someone remarked that often priests will visit a house and talk about the weather, the football, or the state of the garden, leaving without asking about the state of a person’s prayer-life, or interior life; without asking if the family prays regularly, or if they have invited anyone to church recently. All of us, including priests, need to ask ourselves those questions posed in this year’s message for WYD. We need to ask if we have hearts for evangelisation – within both our communities, and amongst our peers.
If the life we lead is to mean anything in a world that rejects, with increasing hostility, the beauty of the life offered to us in Jesus Christ, then people will expect us to share with them the joy of friendship with Christ, lived out through our incorporation into the Church, through our participation in the sacraments – as the means of God’s grace to us. If we fail these people, by failing to communicate effectively the love and mercy of God, then we fall short of our friendship with them, and of our friendship with Jesus Christ. As Pope Francis reminded us this evening, “Today Christ asks each of us again: Do you want to be my disciple? Do you want to be my friend? Do you want to be a witness to my Gospel? In the spirit of the Year of Faith, these questions invite us to renew our commitment as Christians”. Let us take courage from these impressive young pilgrims to Rio, and be bold in so doing.