When a thousand people aged 18 to 35 gather in one place late into the evening, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Washington where there’s plenty else to do, the attraction must be pretty strong.
The pull to come out to the capital’s Saint John Paul II National Shrine on Saturday included good food and fellowship, uplifting music, and something else besides: prayer – personal and shared – and the opportunity simply to be among other young people who give an important place in their lives to God and the Catholic faith.
Dubbed by one priest a “grassroots pilgrimage,” as most participants came on their own or in small groups, the event meant enduring sweltering temperatures that gave way to downpours of rain, and yet people seemed to have a blast.
“The showers made for a WYD atmosphere, as young adults picnicked inside along with bishops, priests and religious,” said Dominican Father Jonathan Kalisch, director of chaplains for the Knights of Columbus, the sponsor of the shrine.
(The Knights of Columbus are also a primary sponsor of Crux.)
“It was a real experience of Catholic life and solidarity,” Kalisch said.
They were there to take part in “WYD Unite,” a national celebration in the spirit of World Youth Day (WYD), the massive international gathering of Catholic young people held every couple of years, with venues rotating between the global north and south.
Saturday’s event came almost one year to the day of the last such gathering in Krakow, Poland, with the next one set for Panama in 2019.
“It is appropriate that they came to the national shrine for St. John Paul, whose greatest pastoral initiative for the young was to establish WYD in 1984,” said Maxime Nogier, acting director of the shrine. “He was from Krakow, and many of the participants from last summer’s WYD were given a deeper insight into the world of faith and culture he came from.”
He said the shrine offers a permanent exhibit on the life and teachings of John Paul, who had a special gift for engaging the young and befriending them while never fearing to ask them to take up the challenges of an authentically Christian life.
“For their part, the young people feel his love and the love of the Church, and do not feel alone on their spiritual journey,” said Nogier.
One of the keynote addresses was given by Cleveland Bishop Nelson J. Perez, who noted that human frailty cannot be allowed to discourage the young. Their presence in such numbers – drawn from 52 different dioceses – was a sign of hope in the midst of other, discouraging trends in society, he said.
“Never, never, never, never underestimate the power of God’s Spirit working in you, through you — and despite you,” said Perez, who spoke on Mary’s words from Scripture, “The Mighty One has Done Great Things for Me.”
At the day’s Mass, Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl reminded the vast group that “we have been anointed in that gift of the Spirit that changes us, transforms us, and energizes… ‘You will be my witnesses,’ Jesus said, before he breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit.”
The day concluded with Eucharistic adoration led by Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., the American bishops’ liaison for World Youth Day. The service included a spirit of perseverance and optimism that was aided by the musical talents – and the personal stories – of Audrey Assad and Tony Melendez.
Assad is a critically acclaimed songwriter and musician. The daughter of a Syrian Christian refugee, she often speaks and performs on behalf of persecuted Christians, especially those in the Middle East. Melendez was born without arms but mastered the guitar by playing with his feet. He played for St. John Paul II in 1987 in Los Angeles, making him famous as a model for those challenged by disabilities.
In his keynote, Caggiano summarized what is at the heart of the youthful experience of Christ in the modern world: “Jesus is extending his hand to you and me in friendship. He’s extending his hand in love and he’s saying ‘Friend, I know your sins, I know your secrets and I love you more than you could ever love yourself.’
“God makes his home in you,” Caggiano told the crowd, adding that they’re “called to an abundant life unto eternity in holiness and grace.”