World Youth Day has come and gone, but I’m still glued to the pictures of Brazil and Pope Francis’ messages of love and tolerance.
I’m blown away by the helicopter images taken above Copacabana beach during the last Mass of the pope’s stay. They show 3 million people standing on the beach, shoulder-to-shoulder, turning the white-sand beach paradise into a colorful mosaic of people representing a hundred different nations and cultures. That day, the beach became a sea of color, with people from all nations raising their hands, waving flags, praying the rosary and singing.
The mainstream media would have us think that everyone was there to get a glimpse of the new pope. But the rest of us know better. Young people go to World Youth Day primarily because they have something to tell the rest of the world: The church matters, young people matter and standing up for the poor and underserved matters.
While I’ve never been to World Youth Day, I’ve been to a Mass celebrated by a pope in New York City twice — once with Pope John Paul II in 1995 and again with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Both were amazing experiences for the same reason: In an audience of thousands, I didn’t feel alone.
That’s why, if possible, I recommend attending one of these large events, whether it’s World Youth Day, the National Catholic Youth Conference, or an event at a local conference with other teens from your diocese.
I realized that the barriers that seemed so important before — culture, language, clique — no longer applied. I had conversations with people who didn’t speak English, got to know people I’d never talk to at home, and made friends for life. In the world church, it doesn’t matter how the syllables come out: The Mass is exactly the same, so there’s always something to build on.
On top of that, nobody at these events is going to tease you or make you feel bad for believing in God or going to youth group, and you get a welcome break from the pressures of pop culture. People at these mass events aren’t worried about what the celebs are wearing or doing. They’re campaigning against apathy, they are building houses for the homeless, helping the poor and generally working to make the world a better place.
It’s hard to be a teen and a Catholic today. The world is full of distractions and temptations that urge people to be selfish, to pursue success at the cost of others’ happiness, to ignore what’s right for what’s expedient and to look down at or be afraid of others who have a different culture, different race or different economic status.
The words of Pope Francis and World Youth Day are reminders that, as Catholic young people, we can’t let the world down by meekly disappearing into the woodwork. As young Catholics, we have to be out there, raising our flags and becoming light for the world. It’s hard to do that alone.
Looking at those pictures of Copacabana beach, you know that you have 3 million people behind you.
What are you going to say?