Pope John Paul II meets with World Youth Day pilgrims in 2002. Fr. Tom Rosica insisted young people be able to get close to the pope.


Pope John Paul II meets with World Youth Day pilgrims in 2002. Fr. Tom Rosica insisted young people be able to get close to the pope.

October 8, 2012

So much could have gone wrong at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

The event was only months after the terror of 9/11, sex abuse scandals involving the Church were erupting, Pope John Paul II was very ill, and a garbage strike was looming in Toronto.

Yet its organizer, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, said the faith and youth event was a huge success. He referred to Salt and Light, the TV network that he founded, as "the daughter of World Youth Day."

Now, as preparations continue for next year's World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Rosica spoke to young people in Edmonton about his experiences with past events, including those in Cologne, Germany in 2005 and Madrid, Spain last year. He is Canada's national representative for World Youth Day.

Moments after Pope John Paul left the airport in Toronto, Rosica cried during a live interview on CBC.

"A representative from CBC said it is rare that we see someone who is in charge of such an event who not only did it because it was a job, but his heart was in it. I received messages years later," said Rosica.

The CBC reporter had asked him what World Youth Day meant to him, and he replied, "Toronto is like a canvas in God's hands, and God sprayed it with these incredible colours, and it was magnificent, and I will never forget this incredible painting that took place.

"It was a work of art," said Rosica.

Initially, the Italian bishops did not want young people too close to the pope. But Rosica insisted. Ten years later, the enduring images of World Youth Day 2002 are those of young people surrounding the pope, all of them with joyful expressions.

About 50 youth gathered at St. Anthony's Church on Edmonton's Whyte Avenue to ask questions of Rosica. Several of them have been to past World Youth Days, an opportunity for catechesis, exploring another nation, socializing among like-minded youth, and perhaps a chance to meet the pope.

Pope John Paul began World Youth Day as a way to capture the spirit of the youth and inspire young people to live the teachings of Christ. His view was that youth are alone in their faith lives and search for God, and they should not be.


"When you look at what happens during World Youth Days, it's actually very, very simple. There is nothing outrageous taking place. It's a pilgrimage," said Rosica, clarifying the difference between tourism and a pilgrimage.

Melanie and Faye Mullen from Niagara Falls, Ont., watch the Way of the Cross in 2002.


h3 class="cap">Melanie and Faye Mullen from Niagara Falls, Ont., watch the Way of the Cross in 2002.

"A pilgrimage is an essential element for being Christian. It's what happens along the way, the bonding, the connections. Even if you can't go on one of the international events, it's very important to keep the sense of pilgrimage alive, pilgrimage to a regional shrine or a holy place," said Rosica.

A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place for the purpose of venerating it and ultimately to come to know God better. People leave their families and home comforts in order to journey to sacred places.


"Tourists pass through the places, and they accumulate experiences and buy postcards and nowadays they fill their iPhones with photos. Pilgrims allow the places to pass through them, and leave them changed," he said.

Rosica explained that young people returning from pilgrimages remember to pay attention during catechesis, they learn the rosary in a special way, they find piety and the Word of God ­- results that would not come from a typical sightseer trip.

"A pilgrimage is not just waiting for the destination to arrive, but it's what happens along the way that changes us."

As evidence, a handful of young people shared glimpses into their World Youth Day experiences. One expressed how she rediscovered the lives of the saints. Others raised their hands when asked if they have kept in contact with people they met at past events.


One young person contemplating his participation in the upcoming World Youth Day is Evan Tarry, 19.

"I've never gone to a World Youth Day, but I have friends who have. Rio isn't quite the same because there might be some safety issues. Being told we can't carry around our passports and cellphones sort of worries me," said Tarry.

More than three million young people, between the ages of 18 and 35, are expected to partake of the pilgrimage in Brazil. The 14th international event will be held July 23 to 28.

Next year's event will allow participants to enjoy an opening Mass and a welcome ceremony with Pope Benedict at Copacabana Beach, and a vigil Mass at Santa Cruz air force base.

The pope announced in August 2011 that the theme for World Youth Day 2013 is taken from the Gospel of Matthew. The theme will be "Go and make disciples of all people."

Aside from World Youth Day, Rio de Janeiro will host two other major international events over the next four years: the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.