World Youth Day is about Christ or it’s about nothing at all

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World Youth Day
The Blessed Sacrament is processed through the Knights of Columbus Mercy Centre during World Youth Day events July 27, 2016. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

World Youth Day (WYD) brings together young people from every corner of the globe to celebrate their Catholic faith. Away from home and buoyed by the witness of their peers, it becomes possible for many to have a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ. But it is not friends, travel or universal embrace of the human spirit that make WYD a life-changing, transcendent experience. Only Jesus Christ is capable of that.

In fact, ultimately, WYD cannot be about anything other than Christ the Lord. Even noble aims like service or expressions of diversity are insufficient organizational principles. And that is because, as Pope Francis has reminded us many times, the Church is not a mere bureaucracy. The Church is the People of God, the very body of Christ! And WYD, a visible and beautiful coming together of the Church, must have Christ as its center and focus. Otherwise, it’s not worth hosting.

‘He is coming to me’

I’ll never forget the evening of worship that I was privileged to participate in as a newly ordained priest in Krakow. Hosted by the Knights of Columbus at Tauron Arena, over 20,000 young people gathered for catechesis, music and Eucharistic adoration. The evening included a Eucharistic procession, which passed several times around the arena. Leading the procession, I recall the delight and emotion expressed by one pilgrim as we turned and began to head in her direction. Seeing the monstrance draw near, the young girl whispered just loud enough for me to hear, “He is coming to me.”

WYD serves as a catalyst for a more profound relationship with Jesus Christ. As young Catholics gather to worship, learn and pray together, the joy and energy present opens hearts and minds to the reality of Christ’s presence. Engaging in spiritual exercises that might not be a regular part of parish life for many young Catholics, pilgrims are invited to experience the living presence of Jesus in a tangible way. They meet Jesus in a privileged way in the confessional, in the Eucharist, and in catechesis. This encounter fosters a deep sense of intimacy and love for Christ, often igniting a desire to seek him with passion and commitment.

Pope Francis burns incense as he celebrates the closing Mass of World Youth Day at Campus Misericordiae in Krakow, Poland, July 31, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Finding identity in Christ

For many young people, World Youth Day offers an opportunity to nourish their faith. That means, first and foremost, discovering their identity in Christ. In Krakow, Pope Francis pointed to the encounter Jesus had with Zaccheus, urging young people to remember their identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. The pope told us, “Jesus has taken upon himself our humanity and his heart will never be separated from us.”

The encounter with Jesus Christ, especially through the witness of the pope and other inspiring Catholics, reinforces the call to live a life centered on Christ. Through catechesis sessions, pilgrims receive guidance and inspiration, equipping them to face the challenges of the modern world with unwavering faith. I have seen over and over again how this encounter renews their commitment to be witnesses of Christ’s love in their communities and empowers them to live the Faith confidently.

Answering the call

When the focus is unabashedly on Christ, young people can hear the Lord’s voice more clearly and begin to know the plans of love he has for them. How many young people have discovered their vocation at WYD? How many have given their first “yes” to Christ to pursue his invitation to priesthood, religious life or marriage?

If WYD is misunderstood as a global gathering to demonstrate diversity or human fraternity, it’s not worth the time or the money. But an event that proposes Jesus Christ to hundreds of thousands of young people who are dying from not knowing him? Now, that’s worth everything.

Father Patrick Briscoe

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Along with his Dominican brothers, he is host of the podcast Godsplaining and a co-author of "Saint Dominic’s Way of Life: A Path to Knowing and Loving God." He is also the author of the OSV seasonal devotional, "My Daily Visitor."