Every few years when World Youth Day is celebrated somewhere new throughout the world, I am reminded that I’ve had the blessing of attending two World Youth Days in my younger years. My first was in Denver, Colorado, in 1993, with my parish Youth Group. My second was in Manila, Philippines, in 1995, as part of my year of missionary work when I took a year off from college. I’ve also had the honor of seeing John Paul II in Rome and the Czech Republic in 1997 while I studied abroad in Austria. Yes, I was perhaps a bit of a groupie, but I must admit that after my first encounter with JPII as an 18 year old, my life absolutely changed for the better. To be given the opportunity of literally being in the presence of holiness is something I’ve learned to never pass up.
Each WYD experience, both Denver and Manila, had its own unique way of speaking to my heart and turning my life, in a more powerful way, toward God. Denver, though, was the most impacting experience for me. I had just graduated from high school and was on my way to college. I had no idea of what to expect, especially since our Youth Group called this adventure a pilgrimage- a completely foreign concept to me at the time. I quickly realized that this was not an ordinary trip with friends, focused only on fun and games. Rather, I learned firsthand that a true pilgrimage is about prayer, a deeper understanding of God and a deeper quest into my own faith journey.
The cramped sleeping quarters, simple food, and continual emphasis on prayer were necessary components for me to understand the idea of pilgrimage, but that was actually only a small part of it all. My eyes were opened in ways I never thought possible. It was both profound and inspiring to see other Catholic youth who possessed not even a morsel of embarrassment or hesitation in talking about spiritual things and/or their own faith journey. I was, in turn, relieved to feel the freedom to let down my own guard and speak openly about my love for Christ and the Church. After having experienced numerous, powerful interactions with other Catholic youth in those first few days of WYD, I remember going to sleep in the evenings, immersed in prayer, feeling absolutely blessed and thankful to be in the presence of sincere Catholics who were not just proud, but truly joyful in proclaiming their Faith. I look back now and am confident that this simple, yet bold experience of other youth living out their Catholic Faith played a huge role in the development of my own faith life. What an unexpected gift, especially at a time of life when the lure of the world is shouting out, ever so loudly, to college-bound young adults to abandon their Faith and embrace a hedonistic lifestyle, one of so-called freedom and happiness.
Over the course of the week, my faith life had exploded in ways I didn’t know possible. I made rock-solid friendships – ones which I treasure and have kept alive to this day. Yet, the highlight of World Youth Day for me was my extraordinary, albeit momentary, encounter with JPII. He had finally arrived into Denver and I struggled to get as close as humanly possible to the path where he would slowly cruise through Mile High Stadium in his pope-mobile. The strong anticipation I physically felt in awaiting our Holy Father came as a strange surprise to me. My breathing became heavier, my hands were shaking and I found myself biting my bottom lip so hard, that I eventually tasted my own blood. …It was brief, perhaps only a few seconds that I was directly in JPII’s presence, but for that very brief, faith-filled moment, the entire world stood still for this child of God. A sense of calm came over me as his loving eyes gazed down upon me, as if he could see directly into my heart. His joy, love and holiness literally overcame me. I felt an overwhelming sense of security in his strong, loving eyes- eyes that were filled with unspeakable hope and joy. I felt the presence of God, the holiness of God in a way that I had never known possible. I was simply in awe. As I watched him leave, I realized that I had tears literally pouring out of my eyes—tears of joy at their finest, and clearly an instinctual reaction of an indescribable experience- one of purity, joy, love and the unmistakable presence of Christ’s peace and holiness. I’m confident that those tears -and the incredibly wet collar of my shirt- was my small little gift from God to always remember and cherish that magnificent, life-changing moment of my youth.
I’ve read various books and articles since JPII’s passing, and they all seem to be consistent in this one area: JPII had come into contact with hundreds of millions of the Catholic Faithful, yet when it was specifically you that was in his presence, you felt as though you were the most important person in the world, truly the only one that mattered in his eyes. Yes, his personality was magnetic and all-encompassing, but there was something much deeper and profound about his presence that captured the hearts of the Faithful. His sincere charism of profound Christ-like love, holiness and personalism, which he carried with him throughout his life and freely shared with all those he encountered, was one of the many tremendous gifts that he bestowed upon the Faithful—of which, I am incredibly grateful to be included.
Even though I did not realize it at the time how monumental this encounter was upon my life, it certainly is obvious now as I look back and see how God’s hand worked out the details and led me toward a life of Truth. I was joyfully inspired by JPII’s proclamation that the youth are the future and the hope of the Church. I was thrilled by his assertion that there is but one Truth, which is found in the very person of Jesus Christ, with our Holy Catholic Church loyally safeguarding and affirming this Truth. I was enthusiastically being drawn into these simple, yet concrete, answers- ones for which I didn’t even realize my heart had been asking, struggling or longing. The Truth was proclaimed in such a powerful way, with confidence and joy, in a way I had never before heard. JPII attracted and brought souls to the Truth by speaking directly to that part of the person’s heart that was crying out for meaning, truth, hope. His words carried authority, love, compassion, honesty. The Holy Father was, and continues to be, the living, breathing representative of Jesus Christ on earth. Yes, the authority and grandeur of his presence were absolutely awe-inspiring, but even more so, it was the purity and holiness of his very person that lovingly pierced the hearts of the Faithful, changing them for the better. For me, that brief, overwhelming experience of being in the Holy Father’s presence was but a taste of what I imagine the heavenly experience will be when we are in the love and holiness of Jesus Christ Himself. St. Augustine wisely and accurately said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.” Such great consolation these words are, especially after experiencing this loving, humble man of God, JPII. He granted me, and so many others- through a simple glance of his strong, loving eyes- an incredibly vibrant taste of holiness, and perhaps a sincere foretaste into the pure joy of Eternal Life with our Lord Jesus Christ. What an astounding treasure God has in store for those who love Him!
As a cradle Catholic, I unfortunately never fully realized the gift I had in my Catholic Faith. I hadn’t taken much time to think about the Pope- or that he would ever be an important figure in my life. Denver’s WYD, however, changed everything for me and gave me an eye-opening awareness of the importance and necessity the Holy Father is to our Holy Catholic Church and especially the amazing treasure we’ve been given with Apostolic Succession. From our first pope, the Apostle Peter, all the way to our present day pope, Benedict XVI, all Catholic Bishops throughout the world, for the past two thousand years, can trace their lineage directly back to Christ. What an incredible reality this is. Jesus Christ Himself told Peter, “You are Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church.” These are words that should make us Catholics tremble. With great resolve and confidence, we are led into the fullness of Truth through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the Chair of St. Peter. What a feeling of both relief and joy to know that we are home, being led by the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ on earth- and exactly where our Lord wants us to be.
Blessed JPII has passed on to his eternal reward and our Church is now blessed with our good and faithful shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI. My admiration and love overflow greatly for this holy man of God. My heart melts when I see him shyly smile upon the adoring crowds and in the sincere way he humbly exhibits the love and holiness of God upon the Faithful. I have great hopes of seeing him someday, perhaps even at another World Youth Day. The reality, however, of the blessings of family life, along with baby #5 due soon, puts somewhat of a cramp in my travel habits of the past. So for now, I cannot be Benedict’s groupie, but I will heartily rejoice with my husband and daughters in simply knowing that he is here on earth, praying with and for all of us, and boldly shepherding our Holy Catholic Church into all Truth, Beauty and Goodness. What a treasure.