Toronto Still Abuzz in the Wake of World Youth Day

Interview with Father Thomas Rosica, a Key Organizer

TORONTO, AUG. 22, 2002 ( Canada needed World Youth Day and John Paul II “to wake us up, infuse us with joy,” says a key organizer of the event.

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, national director and chief executive officer of World Youth Day 2002, shared his impressions about the historic event with ZENIT.

ZENIT: What did World Youth Day mean for you as national director?

Father Rosica: The entire event in Canada spoke of joy, reflected joy, offered joy to so many people. Upon his arrival among us on July 23, Pope John Paul II set the tone for what would take place throughout the week.

He told us that “the young people from all parts of the world … gathering for the World Youth Day bear the marks of a humanity that too often does not know peace, or justice…. Too many lives begin and end without joy, without hope. That is one of the principal reasons for the World Youth Day. Young people are coming together to commit themselves, in the strength of their faith in Jesus Christ, to the great cause of peace and human solidarity.”

Q: What lasting images remain with you from World Youth Day?

Father Rosica: I will never forget the Holy Father’s arrival. It was a splendid, sun-drenched day as the Alitalia plane came to a halt on the runway of Pearson International Airport. I was in a line headed by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of Canada and leaders of government of all levels, followed by officials of the Canadian Church.

We patiently waited for the Holy Father to be lowered to the ground in a specially fitted lift that I myself helped to prepare weeks before. To our astonishment, the lift was not used. Pope John Paul II appeared at the door of the aircraft and began a slow decent of the stairs. The eyes of the world were fixed on this elderly man, and every step was carefully measured. Then the roar of the crowd was heard inside the terminal and all across this country. World Youth Day truly began on a grand note.

Another moment took place later that week, on the night of the papal welcoming ceremony at Exhibition Place. Around midnight I visited the press center just to express thanks to the hundreds of journalists covering the event. We had over 3,800 accredited journalists representing over 800 media outlets. It was astonishing.

On that Thursday night I entered one of the offices of a large American television network and those present burst into applause. One senior woman producer blurted out: “This is one of the most beautiful stories we have ever covered. Thanks for helping to arrange it.”

Even the most cynical among us cannot help but be impressed or moved by the streams of young people who have expressed their joy of being Catholic Christians in a complex and shadow-filled world. All of this has not been a show, nor a protest or photo opportunity staged by some big marketing company hired by the Catholic Church to restore its image in the light of scandals and difficulties.

Q: What has been the response to the event?

Father Rosica: The national office in Toronto has been inundated with calls, letters, messages and e-mails from every corner of the globe. Many of those messages I have received begin with: “Dear Father Rosica, I am not a Catholic but I write to you to let you know the impact World Youth Day has had upon me, my family, my friends, my colleagues…. We have not stopped talking about it.”

Thousands of people were deeply touched by the Stations of the Cross that took place in the heart of Toronto on Friday night, July 26. The CBC, Canada’s national television network, told us that the event was transmitted to over 160 countries in real time. Over 1 billion people participated in the events via television.

For those throughout Canada, and especially in Toronto, who had the opportunity of hosting the young pilgrims in their homes, there has been nothing but words of profuse gratitude. An elderly woman from the Diocese of Peterborough wrote: “My grandchildren don’t come to visit me any longer but during World Youth Day I took in six young people in my house. They made me young again. I loved them and cried when they left.”

A streetcar driver from Toronto wrote us that he was on vacation the week of July 23 in Toronto, but insisted on coming in to work every day “just to catch the spirit that was alive on the TTC.” “Father Tom, bring those young people back again, with their songs, their music, their infectious joy. They were a blessing to all of us.”

One of the senior RCMP officers [federal police] assigned to the project for the past two years wrote to me: “Many RCMP officers who worked on WYD 2002 told me that it was the highlight of their careers to work on this event and in many cases to meet the Holy Father. They were very proud, as I was, when Pope John Paul II mentioned the work of the police in his address at the Sunday Mass. … On a personal note, as a Protestant, I made sure during the year that I was involved in planning for the event, to study the history and significance of the Roman Catholic Church. I came away from the experience with a deep appreciation of the faith and of the work being done by the countless priests, bishops and members of the Church. The Church is alive and well and prospering.”

The multicultural, multifaith, ecumenical nature of Toronto was very evident during World Youth Day 2002. The Muslim Congress was extremely supportive of the event, and mosques throughout the city sent many volunteers. Several young pilgrims were hosted in Jewish families.

People of other faiths worked as volunteers, pilgrim hosts, etc. The Mormons sent a large delegation of volunteers to help with the meal distribution, as well as donating one ton of fresh cut flowers to decorate all of the places where the Pope would be.

Q: What challenges lie ahead for the Church in Canada?

Father Rosica: If World Youth Day 2002 taught us anything in Canada, it indicated the road that lies ahead: We are barely scratching the surface of young adult ministry.

The young Canadians who attended World Youth Day are only the beginning of our pastoral ministry. There are hundreds of thousands more who are waiting to be welcomed into the life of the Church, and to be given credible and visible roles. We must be creative, persistent, simple and joyful as we go out to meet them and welcome them into our midst.

The genius of Pope John Paul II was clearly evident in his granting World Youth Days to Canada this summer. Canada and Toronto needed World Youth Days to wake us up, infuse us with joy, remind us of our gifts and qualities of hospitality, tolerance and peacemaking that have characterized this nation.

But Canada also needed World Youth Days to call us back to our deeply Christian origins in this country. It is only when a nation and a society reclaim their original identity that they can ever hope to become authentically multicultural, tolerant and open to others.

The great irony of all of this incredible story is the fact that the catalyst of the whole adventure of World Youth Day is an old man, a warrior, a fighter, a shepherd and courageous leader who has come to Canada to help us rediscover our own youthfulness, hope and joy.

His presence among us has caused rivers of tears to flow, hundreds of thousands of hearts to be deeply touched, and lives to be forever changed. I will never be able to visit Exhibition Place again without hearing the songs and laughter, seeing the crowds and the flags. Nor will I ever walk up University Avenue without envisioning the thousands of people on their knees as Jesus and his friends walked up to the Provincial Parliament Buildings on the Way of the Cross.

Downsview Park and the Bombardier airstrip will remain one of the biggest cathedrals in the world … and Strawberry Island, Morrow Park, the Basilian Fathers and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto will have a glow around them for the rest of its days.

Q: Yet World Youth Day didn’t come without a price …

Father Rosica: We do have a financial shortfall. For this reason we turn to the public to assist us with financial donations to help us cover the expenses of this great event that has touched our country and our world.

In North America, supporters may call 1-888-559-9930 to make a donation by credit card. They could also mail a check to World Youth Day 2002, 415 Yonge Street, Suite 900 Toronto, Ontario, M5B 2E7 Canada; or make a deposit at any branch of Scotiabank to the World Youth Day 2002 account. Their generosity and encouragement is much appreciated.

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