This post follows on from Part 1, which can be found here.
3. Sense of the Universal Church
For many of the pilgrims, World Youth Day is their first experience of a major Catholic event. Only at large celebrations in Rome, really, is such a beautiful example of the universal Church otherwise offered. A quick glance at the national flags in the crowds shows one part of this, but it is also the range of religious habits, of the New Ecclesial Movements and communities, that reveals something of the healthy plurality that exists in the Church, and which becomes a strengthening factor in the experience of World Youth Day. That plurality, too, is of course maintained and disciplined by the guidance of the Holy Father. His presence at World Youth Day is not simply as a crowd-pleaser, but as an essential sign of the universal nature of the Church, which gathers with Peter to say to the Lord, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you”. World Youth Day pilgrims take this idea away with them – they learn something about the universal nature of the Church, and they glimpse the real and paternal care exercised by the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. They learn something by experience that in the past was reserved to seminarians sent to Rome for their studies and, in doing so, they gain a profound understanding of their incorporation into the mystical body of Christ. Whether they come from thriving parishes, or are relatively isolated as young, faithful Catholics, such an encounter creates a personal sense of discipleship, and an intentional sense of mission, making them more confident to speak of their own experience of Christ’s love to their friends and peers.
4. Universal Call to Holiness
Vocations discernment is a major part of the World Youth Day programme, and rightly so. There is the mandatory Vocations Fair where religious orders and Bishops’ Conferences set-up shop, but there is also the work that goes on in the individual pilgrimage groups, with the priests, religious, and seminarians leading them. This is vital work. The experience of World Youth Day, as we have noted, not only opens up the hearts of young people to the idea of a life consecrated to the Lord, but awakens in them a desire to serve God in all that they do; a desire to be holy, to become saints. So good vocations work – starting with faithful discipleship, which in turn discerns vocations – is essential, as we noted before. It is a platform for putting into effect and practice the newly (re)established personal relationship with Christ, and the desire of the pilgrim to contribute to the mission of the Church; to become a practitioner of the New Evangelization. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston remarked during his catechesis in Rio, that over a third of current seminarians in the US had been World Youth Day pilgrims. This joyous experience of the faith makes people take their faith seriously, strive towards holiness of life, ask the Lord the question, “What do you want me to do with my life?”, and then respond: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
Some examples: Keeping the experience alive
I am grateful to Sherry Weddell (author of Forming Intentional Disciples) for a critical eye and comments on the first instalment of these thoughts. She rightly stressed that, whilst World Youth Day is ‘one very special kind of Nazareth’, it nonetheless reaches only a very small percentage of the Catholic world – even our Catholic youth. She is right. As she goes on to say, “Our families and our parishes, campus ministries, etc. are all called to be Nazareths […] the need to discern God’s call at this [or that] stage of my life and wrestle with to love and serve Christ in this [or that] setting never ends”. This touches on my final point: implementing and extending the experience of World Youth Day. World Youth Day may be a Nazareth experience – where evangelisation is first taught – but the process of ongoing conversion does not end there, and nor does the formation that is required for us to create ‘intentional disciples’. To extend an analogy given by Cardinal Pell in his catechesis in Rio, talking about ‘cultural Catholics’, if a boat has too many passengers and not enough crew, it will fail to reach the intended destination.
In the UK there are a number of small projects that have grown out of the experience or culture of World Youth Day, and which now provide models of how such ongoing formation might occur – how, just as Adoration is an extension of the elevation at Mass, we might extend this encounter with Christ as a means of deep and lasting formation. First amongst these is the Saint Patrick’s Evangelisation School, based in the West End of London. SPES was founded in 2002 by Fr Alexander Sherbrooke to offer young people a rigorous formation through vocational discernment, a daily pattern of prayer and spiritual direction, teaching and apologetics rooted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the practical experience of street evangelization through parish ministry and associated apostolates such as Nightfever, which is quickly catching-on in the UK as elsewhere.
Secondly, the newly established Vocations Centre in Whitstable, on the Kent coast, will – this year – take on a number of young men who are at different stages of discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Though more explicitly geared towards priestly vocations, the centre will revolve around the notion that ‘Discipleship Discerns Vocation’. In other words, if through an ongoing sense of discipleship a vocation to the priesthood becomes clear or can be discounted, the task has been completed with equal ‘success’. This new initiative is the work of Fr Stephen Langridge, commissioned by the Archbishop of Southwark, and will not only involve catechesis, prayer, and community life, but also a strong human formation based on the theological virtues. The men will also form a Mission Team, to speak about discipleship and discernment to other young people in schools and parishes, drawing on the proven benefits of peer evangelization. You can help kit-out this new Vocations Centre by donating via their Amazon WishList.
World Youth Day has a deep and lasting effect on the lives of many of our young people. It is far from exhaustive, and it is far from complete in terms of formation in the faith, but it is a place where the seeds of evangelical heart are well-sown, and where those who have been ‘sacramentalised but not catechised’ are often given an initial sense of what life in Christ can truly mean. Perhaps we can learn something from this, not just for youth work in dioceses and parishes, but in a wider sense of adult formation and catechesis; that truly encountering the reality of Jesus Christ cannot leave us cold and unresponsive, but transforms and transfigures our lives, demanding not only an interior conversion, but an external outreach and mission that shares that joy with those we meet.