World Youth Day has come and gone. More than a million young people gathered in Poland — pilgrims seeking something in their lives. In reality, they were not seeking something, but someone, Jesus Christ. I was one of those pilgrims, along with 85 other bishops from the United States who met in Krakow for this global event. It is estimated that 40,000 people from the United States made the pilgrimage to be united with the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for those days of prayer and celebration of our faith in Jesus Christ.
This was the first World Youth Day that I have ever attended and I was not disappointed. I deeply enjoyed the experience. Our host country, Poland, opened her arms to all of us. We felt welcomed and loved, cared for and secure. The Polish people were very friendly and their own love for Christ and his church was evident. They seemed happy to be the host to so many people from around the world.
What I found most inspiring was the enthusiasm, the beautiful spirit and the prayerfulness of the young people and their love and desire for Jesus. This was a great grace for me. It bolstered the spirit of faith and hope in all of us. In particular, I cherished the time I was able to spend with the youth of our own diocese and to hear of their desires for World Youth Day in regard to their relationship with Jesus. I want to thank them for their willingness to share their love for the Lord and for answering their call to follow Jesus.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, arrived in Krakow on July 28. Throughout the days he was there, his encouragement to the young people to live a life following Jesus came through over and over again. His messages spoke not only to the young, but to all Christians, if we really want to follow Christ. He challenged the youth and all of us to be in the forefront of serving others. In his talk at the Stations of the Cross, he shared these words:
“Humanity today needs men and women, and especially young people like yourselves, who do not wish to live their lives ‘halfway,’ young people ready to spend their lives freely in service to those of their brothers and sisters who are poorest and most vulnerable, in imitation of Christ who gave himself completely for our salvation. In the face of evil, suffering and sin, the only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is the attitude of service. Unless those who call themselves Christians live to serve, their lives serve no good purpose. By their lives, they deny Jesus Christ.”
Pope Francis, in his homily at the Vigil Service on Saturday night, spoke of how “God expects something from all of us; how he hopes in us and comes to open the doors of our lives, our dreams, our ways of seeing things. God comes to break open everything that keeps us closed in.”
He told us to get off the couch and stop being young “couch potatoes” but “young people with shoes, or better, boots laced” who go out into the world and leave their mark in history that began at Pentecost. “The Lord wants to work one of the greatest miracles we can experience; he wants to turn your hands, my hands, our hands, into signs of reconciliation, of communion, of creation. He wants your hands to continue building the world of today. And he wants to build that world with you.”
As Pope Francis shared in his homily at the closing Mass for World Youth Day, we are to be like Zacchaeus who took a risk and put his life on the line for Jesus. “When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit around waiting with arms folded; he offers us life — we can’t respond by thinking about it or texting a few words! Don’t be afraid to say ‘yes’ to him with all your heart, to respond generously and to follow him! Don’t let your soul grow numb, but aim for the goal of a beautiful love which also demands sacrifice. Say a firm ‘no’ to the narcotic of success at any cost and the sedative of worrying only about yourself and your own comfort.”
In spite of the heat and humidity the last few days of World Youth Day, it is my sense that the young people, perhaps all of us, came away with a new sense of mission and a new sense of our call to discipleship; that World Youth Day is not meant to be only a cherished memory, but to be lived in the concrete, to be lived in every corner of our lives. If this happens, then World Youth Day will have been a great success, not only for the church in western South Dakota, but for the entire world.