Birthplace of World Youth Days; Background Work

Centro San Lorenzo, Something Old and New

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, AUG. 18, 2005 ( Everything has a moment of conception — a place and a time when it all began. This is valid for the World Youth Days too, and Rome was where it began.

Specifically, it was the Centro San Lorenzo/International Youth Center and was one of Pope John Paul II’s first big steps at renewing the faith of the young.

As his pontificate started, he was concerned about the dwindling numbers of young people active in the Church.

That’s when he went on a search to give youth a place — it could become the Vatican Youth Center — and he managed to find one practically in front of St. Peter’s Square.

It was the old Church of St. Lawrence «in Piscibus» (at the Fish Market) that had been forgotten due to the modern palazzi blocks which had been built around it.

With fourth-century foundations, the stunning church we see today was reconstructed in the 12th century following the Crusades. Its alternating interior columns still have little crosses carved into them as symbols of the «conquest over paganism.»

The church had gone through a lot of hardships by the time John Paul II came upon it — from being de-consecrated and turned into an artists studio, to becoming a home to Rome’s fish markets at one time.

Yet, the Pope saw potential in this lovely building that had almost been left to ruin, just as he saw potential in the youth of the day. He reconsecrated it in a special youth Mass in March 1983.

During this Mass — photos of which still hang on the walls of the church — John Paul II expressed his desire that the church, its basement and courtyard become «a hothouse of faith-filled evangelization … a breeding ground for mission.»

During this time there was a rise in the newer communities, many of them based on the Charismatic Renewal. They were attracted to the Pope’s enthusiasm and decided to respond to his invitation by pooling their resources.

Ever since then, the Centro, as its affectionately known, has offered the youth of the world a place to come and ask questions when visiting the Eternal City. They then have an opportunity to partake in daily sacraments — reconciliation, Mass, etc. — in a variety of languages, and a holy hour at 5 p.m. every weekday.

Over the years many youth have also taken the chance to kneel at the foot of the original cross, given to young people by the Pope in 1984, which stays here when not traveling around the world.

The center, overseen by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, welcomes pilgrimage groups. More information is available via phone (39-06-698-85332) or fax (39-06-698-85095).

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Behind the Scenes

The Vatican works for each World Youth Day behind the scenes, via the Youth Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Some of its roles include the publishing of multilingual booklets for the occasion, multimedia promotion kits, and reflection points for diocesan preparation.

Elizabeth Hawkins is an officer at this Youth Section. She spoke with me about how the office also assists in the coordination of the World Youth Days.

«We organize the WYD around preparatory meetings, for each year, but the work is on a more grand scale when it comes to the international ones,» she said.

Hawkins emphasized how much the staff cares about learning the intricate needs of each country involved and how important it is to learn from the past.

«In the case of Cologne, the first meeting was held directly after [World Youth Day in] Toronto, to get some feedback on how things went here,» she recalled.

«In fact, we sent out questionnaires to discover what people thought; what went right or wrong, what they wanted, etc., and this was presented and discussed at that meeting,» Hawkins explained. «Another meeting took place last January in Cologne itself to specifically hear the input and expectations of the WYD representatives from across the world.»

Hawkins noted that it is especially important to highlight the beauty that each host country offers, and equally be concerned about what the event is bringing to the nation.

«In this case, it’s the Pope’s nationality too,» she said. «I think it will be very good for the Church in Germany. The young people are so thrilled to invite one of their own! And I think it’s going to be a very nice bridge.»

She added: «This is a period of transition in history where papal legacies are being passed on to the next Pope. WYD is among them.»

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Where Youth Day Is Every Day

Each World Youth Day challenges young people to be the principal actors in the new evangelization. And there’s a school in Rome that offers them the chance to live up to the challenge.

The Emmanuel School of Mission is available to those wishing to follow up their World Youth Day experience by committing to relive it on a daily basis for an entire year.

Located just up the road from the Vatican, the school aims to form young adults to be missionary in their whole being while continuing to pursue their professional, academic and family life. Its current director, Marie Barbieri, believes «the school means to offer a year’s experience rich in missionary, spiritual and doctrinal formation.»

The school offers an experience in theory and practice based on pastoral, theological and spiritual formation, as well as a «Roman dimension.»

What better place to form these young saints than in the heart of the Church, the resting place for so many martyrs and apostles and the home of the Pope?

Visits to Rome’s sacred sites are just one part of the ESM syllabus. Rome is also an ideal spot for introducing young people to the universal Church, through daily contact with pilgrims, teachers and students from every continent.

I have witnessed the new annual intake of students to the ESM ever since I was welcomed there as a young pilgrim myself.

It was such a welcome site to see the smiling face of young Harold Kuijpers of the Netherlands. After he kindly relieved me of my heavy backpack, an Irish student led me up to a courtyard filled with singing. Along the way we passed by the chapel where adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was being held. It was World Youth Day all over again!

Ever since then, I have grown fondly attached to this community and once in a while, even become a part of its international staff of more than 30 teachers.

I work on elements of music and singing in missions. The principal courses are run in theology, philosophy and personal development.

The ESM coordinators — members of the Emmanuel Community — describe the methodology of the school as «dynamic» and say that it «encourages the active participation of the students.»

Discussion, question time, role playing, workshops and group work provide an arena for mutual support in learning. Students also have a chance to use their input in creative ways in various Roman parishes.

One example is the annual Halloween mission where the students dress up as various saints and invite the people gathered around the Trevi fountain to celebrate the feasts of All Souls and All Saints by entering the church there.

Another occasion occurs at Christmas when the teams offer a live Nativity scene to all visitors at the top of the Spanish Steps. Both the Halloween and Christmas events are accompanied by appropriate music and sacraments.

Their mission experience often extends beyond Rome to other countries that request their services.
Encounters with people of all walks of life through these missions reveal the numerous questions, doubts, struggles people carry about life. The ESM crew suggest that «these questions are reflected upon in class to deepen the student’s understanding of humanity and the answers to be found in the long tradition of
the Catholic faith, adapted to today’s situation.»

They describe the approach as «a pastoral one designed to enable others to encounter the closeness and tender love of God for his people, learn to know who God really is and discover his presence in the Church.»

Cardinal Francis Stafford was president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity when the ESM started. It captured his attention. «Faced with the challenges of secularization, poverty, unemployment, loneliness and despair among the youth,» he said, «there is a need to form the youth leaders of our Church to find new ways of communicating the hope that comes from Jesus Christ, unique Savior of the world.

«The existence of a School of Mission in Rome provides a unique opportunity for young lay Catholics to draw inspiration from the lives of the apostles and martyrs as well as allowing the students to come into contact with numerous people working for the mission of the Church in the world today.»

Barbieri invites 20- to 35-year-olds who are committed to «spreading the Gospel in their country and beyond» to be «bold and take courage … it’s one year that can make all the difference.» And to more than 600 students to date, it has.

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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