August 1, 2023 // National

The ‘life-changing’ experience of World Youth Day


OSV News — In 1997, then-19-year-old Jessica Smith sang on the papal stage at World Youth Day (WYD) in Paris as pilgrims made their way to Longchamp Racecourse for the event’s final Mass with Pope St. John Paul II. She was amazed by the sheer number of people, she said, and while her singing ministry led her to stages at other large Catholic events, WYD stands apart in her memory.

“What was really transformative in my faith, as a result of World Youth Day, was that I finally understood the magisterium, like the reality of the papacy became known to me,” said Smith, now 46, a pastoral associate at her parish in Columbia City, Indiana. “You couldn’t be anywhere near John Paul II and not be transformed. … It connected me to the church in a more concrete way.”

Knowing the impact the event had on her as a young adult, Smith and her husband traveled with six of their 12 kids to Lisbon, Portugal, for WYD. She expects the sacrifices, including a hefty financial cost, required to make it possible for her oldest children to go to be worth it, she said.

Dominican Father John Winkowitsch, pastoral vicar at St. Raymond Parish in Menlo Park, Calif., gestures as he walks with other members of his order July 31, 2023, near the main stage for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. Pope Francis is scheduled to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon Aug. 2-6. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

“Young adulthood is such a time of transition, and it’s really easy to get lukewarm about your faith as you’re really busy with all the changes in life,” she said. “I hope it (WYD) draws them in close and helps them to feel really connected to Jesus.”

Smith’s kids, ages 16 to 22, will be among the 400,000 registered young adults and as many as 2 million general pilgrims anticipated to attend WYD this year with Pope Francis. The event, a worldwide gathering historically held every two to three years, is a significant undertaking, requiring years of planning and tens of millions of dollars to prepare and host.

“Undoubtedly, establishing World Youth Days was one of the most prophetic decisions of Saint John Paul II and nowadays the Church still benefits from its fruit,” Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, wrote in a 2016 book, “World Youth Days: A Testimony to the Hope of Young People.”

“For many young people, WYDs were the moments of deep internal transformation or even authentic conversions,” he said.

That was the case for Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, who was among the nearly 700,000 young people who descended upon his hometown of Denver when the city hosted WYD.

“World Youth Day was a life-changing experience for me,” he said, first, because he encountered the universal nature of the Church and saw tens of thousands of young people engaged in Mass and going to confession, and second because he encountered the Pope.

As St. John PauI spoke to the pilgrims during the prayer vigil at Colorado’s Cherry Creek State Park, the 25-year-old future priest and bishop left his group and, alone, weaved through the crowd to get closer to the Pope. “I remember being so taken by John Paul as he was speaking that I just wanted to get as close as I could to him,” Bishop Cozzens said. “I just remember thinking, ‘I will follow you wherever you go,’ especially the way he was inviting us to pursue holiness with our whole hearts.”

WYD not only changed the lives of participants, it also changed the Church in Denver and the United States, Bishop Cozzens said.

“It’s had a generational impact, like lots of people came back to the Church after World Youth Day in Denver,” he said. “In Denver, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) classes were filled, and apostolates were born, and a lot of people of my generation experienced such a profound impact that they ended up giving their lives to the church in more profound ways.”

Paul Jarzembowski, associate director for the laity in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, was among those young people at WYD in Denver inspired to use his gifts to serve the Church. Now Jarzembowski oversees WYD planning for U.S. pilgrims on behalf of the U.S. Bishops. As a teenager in Denver, he recalls St. John Paul telling the pilgrims to “proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops” and taking that message to heart.

“I kept imagining myself climbing up on the rooftops of my neighborhood,” he said. “I thought, yeah, I can’t just be kept in my house, in my school, in my small group of friends at my church. I need to take this beyond it. So, it really introduced for me this idea that I needed to take responsibility for my faith life, which led me ultimately to a career working in the church.”

Statistics support testimonials lauding the fruit of the event. Spanish social research company GAD3 has organized a survey among participants after every WYD since Madrid 2011. After WYD in Krakow 2016, they asked young people whether WYD strengthened their relationship with God, and 98% said yes. The theme of WYD 2016 was “mercy,” and 90 percent of the youth said the event taught them more about mercy, while 89 percent said WYD 2016 strengthened their relationship with the Church.

There is also a bigger social perspective, as 97 percent of youth said, “WYD strengthened my will to improve society.”

That was true for Kasia Wasiutynska, who at age 27 managed the volunteer department for WYD in Krakow. Young Christians participating in WYD are equipped with idealistic, yet real, goals: “to make the world a better place,” she said.

Wasiutynska oversaw a team of almost 80 long-term volunteers and local team leaders and organized grounds for 19,000 short-term volunteers that came to Krakow from 63 countries around the world.

“I formed this team from scratch and dedicated three years of my life to organizing WYD,” she said emphasizing that the outcomes are visible, and long-term.

“Being engaged in such an event gives you power and possibilities to later act locally. Many volunteers that came to ‘our’ WYD later engaged in their parishes. They still form groups and ministries, they embark themselves on foreign missions,” she said.

Wasiutynska’s work kept her busy, so when Stanislaw, a computer science engineer who had recently graduated from university, joined the committee two years before the event to develop the volunteer app, she was not interested in his friendly chats.

“I told Stanislaw I don’t date until WYD is over. So, he told me with a smile, ‘I’ll call two days after it’s over.’ And he did. I only learned later he fell in love with me the first day he saw me on the committee,” she said. “He was really patient!”

They got married at the John Paul II Sanctuary in Krakow a year after WYD 2016 and now have three little girls, including 2-year-old twins.

WYD “gave us foundations,” Wasiutynska said. “It was a time of hard work, which prepared us for tough tasks both in our professional and private lives. … Family life with three little kids is like managing a crisis 24/7. But the years we spent at WYD taught us that responsibility tastes best when taken courageously and complex free.”

Kate Fowler, 33, was a student at Santa Clara University in California and had recently returned from a semester abroad in Spain when she had the chance to go back for WYD in Madrid. She was eager for more travel and excited to see the Pope, but only had “a superficial understanding” of what to expect, she said.

“It took me going to realize how isolated and lonely I had felt as a young adult, as someone who had been going to Mass pretty faithfully every Sunday. I felt like, was religion, was faith, was Catholicism dying? Were there others like me who valued their faith?”

Fowler and other students traveled with two Jesuits to Spain ahead of WYD for a “mini-retreat” in Loyola, the hometown of the Jesuits’ founder St. Ignatius. They then spent a few days doing acts of service in Malaga, a port city on Spain’s southern shore, before heading to Madrid for the main event.

“It was overwhelming in a beautiful way,” Fowler said of WYD. “For the first time in my life, I realized that the Catholic Church is so much bigger than my parish or my personal experience. I really saw that the Body of Christ is universal, is alive and well, and that there were other young adults who were also committed and invested in their faith, talking about Jesus and meditating on Scripture.”

Attending WYD inspired Fowler to ask not what she wanted for her life, but what God wanted for her life, she said. She joined a prayer group, began praying the rosary, and attended daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration. She later pursued a master’s degree in theology and now works for a Washington-based Catholic apostolate and is a wife and mother.

“There was such communion among people from all over the world,” she said, “and the only thing that united everyone was Jesus Christ, and that was just incredible.”

Maria Wiering is a senior writer for OSV News. Paulina Guzik is the international editor for OSV News.

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