By Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, OMI, Archbishop of Anchorage
I was ordained a priest way back in the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. He had a marvelous sense of the mission of the church and, in expanding Papal travels abroad showed us his missionary zeal in imitation of the apostle Paul. Pope Paul's approach was somewhat academic but prepared the way for the revolution that Pope St. John Paul II was to carry out.
Initiating world youth days was truly a decision guided by the Holy Spirit. My first experience of this amazing series of events in the Church was at the World Youth Day held in Denver, Colorado. I was a new bishop in Duluth, Minnesota and was amazed at the response of our young people to the invitation of the Pope to join him for days of celebration and prayer. We had 20 busloads of youth and adult chaperones who headed from our diocese to Denver. What amazed me even more was the enthusiasm and joy engendered in our youth, which was clearly visible upon our return home. Something in that experience had touched the hearts of all of us deeply and continued to guide our experience in the Church well beyond that summer.
Attempting to assess the impact that World Youth Days have upon those who attend I am going back to the practice of our ancestors in the faith in going up to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate major feasts and other events. The members of the 12 tribes of Israel journeyed to the Temple to worship God in his holy place, to be in touch with Him and with their own destiny. They returned home to their own places strengthened by their experience of the community of the Israelite people and fortified to live out their identity as God's chosen people.
This historical reality helps me understand the powerful effect that World Youth Days have. I have attended all, except the one in Australia, since that Denver experience, and I am moved each time by the powerful work of the Spirit among those who attend. As with the people of Israel journeying to God's dwelling place in the Temple, our youthful pilgrims and adults journey together to worship God and meet Jesus Christ in the person of his Vicar on Earth, the Bishop of Rome. On their way they form community together and then join the greater community of the Universal Church. This experience helps them get in touch with their own identity as Catholics and to own that identity in experiencing the massive community of believers gathered around our Holy Father. Despite the challenges and inconveniences of the journey they go away with a deeper understanding of who they are and strengthened in their faith by the community which both supports and challenges them. They are ready to respond to the mission which the Pope gives them. A good number of those who attend World Youth Day think seriously of the possibility of serving Christ in consecrated life or the priesthood.
I thank God for this gift of world youth days which have so effectively energized our young Church and which succeeding Popes have embraced. May God continue to bless these massive efforts. May the next World Youth Day in Poland be again a great grace to our Church.