Pope’s World Youth Day message should guide young and old

Morgan Harris, from Church of the Redeemer, Mechanicsville, pauses for a quick photo with Bishop Barry C. Knestout during the pilgrimage walk on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (Photo submitted by Morgan Harris)

One of the highlights of my summer, in addition to relaxing with family and friends, was participating in the World Youth Day (WYD) celebration with Pope Francis and 1.5 million youth and young adults, including more than 60 from our diocese, in Lisbon, Portugal. More than a celebration, it was a pilgrimage – physically and spiritually.

When the population of a city quadruples for a week, one can expect challenges – e.g., long, slow-moving lines, crowded public transportation in getting from place to place. But the delays, heat and fatigue did not quash participants’ vibrancy, optimism and hopeful energy. This was evident in their authentic desire and openness in their willingness to express and live our faith.

The theme Pope Francis established for WYD was “Rise up and go in haste” – based upon Luke 1:39 in which Mary, upon hearing that Elizabeth was also pregnant, rushes to visit her. She puts aside, for a time, her own anxieties and her pressing needs to assist her elder cousin who has become aware of her own unexpected pregnancy.

This theme was tied to the framework our Holy Father established for the upcoming synod on synodality. In preparation for that gathering he has emphasized what is at the heart of the pilgrimage of faith for each of us: we rise up. We are attentive to others. We respond with practical works of charity, walking with them, seeing, hearing and being attentive to the needs of the world around us.

Rarely are pilgrimages stress free. One can go to Rome, Fátima, Lourdes or anywhere else and encounter challenges and frustrations. It is no different in our pilgrimage of faith which takes place in a world that fills us with anxiety, isolation and fear. We often get to the point where we don’t want to look at it and don’t want to hear about it. Sadly, especially among young people, the response is often to dull the senses, to shut out the pain through self-medication, alcohol or opiates.

But if we are open to the work of the Spirit amid our troubles, these challenges can be occasions of grace. In the context of struggles or obstacles our hearts are squeezed and pulled, stretched, to open more room within us for the fruits of the Spirit.

In an Aug. 15, 2022, message to youth, Pope Francis expressed hope that in their pilgrimage to WYD they would rediscover “the joy of a fraternal embrace between peoples and generations, embrace of reconciliation and peace, an embrace of new missionary fraternity!”

The embrace between peoples and generations calls to mind St. Peter quoting the Prophet Joel during Pentecost: “It shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out a portion of my Spirit on all mankind: Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams…” (Acts 2:17).

It is usually the young who dream about their hopes for the future, but here they are given vision – the grace and wisdom of age. For the old, whose vision comes with life experiences, it is a time to dream again with the vitality and innocence of youth.

The Gospel, that “portion of the Spirit” compensates and guides us through our weakness and inadequacies. The Spirit helps us to see clearly with wisdom, knowledge and understanding. It helps us to choose well by exercising right judgment and acting prudently with courage and piety.

Through the Spirit we have been given the tools, i.e., the Paschal Mystery, Scripture, Church teachings, the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes and principals of social teaching, for discerning priorities. With the Eucharist as their source, these are sustenance for our pilgrimage of faith, for addressing the fears and anxieties we encounter.

In his homily at the closing WYD Mass, Pope Francis told the youth that when they return to their worlds, they should radiate the love of Jesus and listen to the Gospel with their hearts. He continued:

“You have great dreams, but often fear that they may not come true; sometimes you think that you are not up to the challenge, which is a kind of pessimism that can overcome us at times. As young people, you may be tempted at this time to lose heart, to think you fall short, or to disguise your pain with a smile.

“As young people, you want to change the world – and it is very good that you want to change the world – you want to work for justice and peace. You devote all your life’s energy and creativity to this, but it still seems insufficient. Yet, the Church and the world need you, the young, as much as the earth needs rain. To all of you, dear young people, who are the present and the future, yes to all of you, Jesus now says: ‘Have no fear,’ ‘Do not be afraid!’”

As we – the old with dreams, the young with visions – continue our pilgrimage of faith, let us rise in haste and draw upon the Spirit while accompanying and listening to one another. We do so having been assured that we need not be afraid.

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