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Nov 03, 2022 553 Sister Jane M. Abeln SMIC

World Youth Day

Heard about World Youth Day? Sister Jane M. Abeln prods you to take a chance and experience this unbelievable celebration that brings Heaven to earth

From the day Pope John Paul II appeared as the new Pope with the words, “Be not afraid!”, I greatly admired and followed him. He inspired my work with youth, for whom he had a special charism. In 1984 and 1985, he issued a special invitation for youth to join him in Rome on Palm Sunday. This was so successful that he expanded it into a “World Youth Day” (or rather week) which now occurs in different nations around the world every two years.

A Polish-born journalist shared a marvelous insight into how Pope JPII evolved the idea of World Youth Days. “In Communist Poland, he had to find ways of helping Catholics express their faith. Every year, he organized pilgrimages to Jasna Gora (Shrine of the Black Madonna), for August 14-15. He discovered how greatly these built relationships and strengthened faith in his people.”

Although I am no longer a youth or young adult, God in His Providence made it possible for me to attend the North American World Youth Days. World Youth Day is designed for the 16-35 age group, but priests, religious, families and older chaperones are also welcome. With less than a year to go for the August 1-7, 2023 World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, I share my experiences to inspire you to join the pilgrimage, to support others to attend and to join them in prayer.

WYD 1993, Denver, Colorado, USA

With Pope John Paul II coming to Denver in 1993 for the first World Youth Day in the USA, I began planning a local event in our archdiocese to tie in with it. When it fell through, I read about a surplus “packet” offered by Salesians at a bargain price, which included the round trip flight and hotel, and arranged to go with a local youth group.

The motto of Denver World Youth Day was: “I have come to bring you life—abundant life” (John 10:10).We felt it enfolding us from the very moment we arrived to hear the airport filled with the joyful sound of young adults singing to the Lord in languages from around the globe. That continued through the catechetical days. The cheerful enthusiasm of the young people and their chaperones was like a foretaste of Heaven as they laughed, shared meals, smiles and deep conversations. Wherever they went, they sang, danced and chanted while they waved their banners and flags in the streets. Grace flowed as people flocked to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, pray around the clock at Eucharistic Adoration and gather for reverent, prayerful Masses. When Pope John Paul arrived, he was greeted by applause and animated voices chanting, “John Paul II, we love you.”

The culminating World Youth Day began with a pilgrimage on foot to the venue of the final Mass. Pilgrims could walk 15 miles, or take the trolley and walk just 3 miles. I chose the latter on the 90ᵒ F day, but after Vespers service with the Holy Father, the field at Denver’s mile-high site dropped to 40ᵒ. Although I nearly froze because I didn’t bring the warm clothing advised, I was entertained by the Spanish and French youth who danced all night. The dawning of a new day, returned warmth to our bodies as we emerged from our sleeping bags to prepare for the final Mass. This was so beautiful that tears of joy streamed from my eyes as I prayed in union with so many young people filled with hope for the future.

In a riveting homily to the millions gathered before him, Pope John Paul II challenged us to be active in promoting a “Culture of Life” to counter the devastation being wreaked by the “Culture of Death” which promotes contraception, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, despair and suicide. This call would inspire the formation of many new apostolates including “Crossroads” which began at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and has expanded into annual pro-life summer pilgrimages in 3 countries, publicly witnessing to the communities they pass through, as they make prayerful sacrifice for them.

WYD 2002, Toronto, Canada

In 2002, I was blessed to be sponsored to attend Pope John Paul II’s final World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada. Although the Pope was now bent with age, and shaking with Parkinson’s disease, he still had the capacity to invigorate and inspire a new generation to carry on the mission. Although Sunday started with a downpour, I clung to a hope that it would clear. The Gospel came from Matthew 5. Just as the words, “You are the light of the world,” (Mt 5:14) rang out through the stadium, the sun broke through the clouds.

The Pope’s homily came straight from his Shepherd heart: “Jesus Christ is the Light in the world’s great darkness. Don’t get caught in the darkness. Although I have lived through much darkness…I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young.”

He directly addressed the sex-abuse scandal that had just broken out: “Don’t be discouraged by sins of darkness, even in priests and religious. BUT [he shouted] remember the many good priests and religious whose only desire is to serve and do good.” He encouraged the youth to follow religious and priestly vocations—“the royal road of the Cross” on which, in difficult times, “the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.” Many vocations were born that year.

When our Holy Father announced the next site as 2005 in Cologne, Germany, he added, “Christ will meet you there.” My heart skipped a beat and tears filled my eyes, because he usually said, “I will meet you there.” I knew, we all knew, that he knew his final days were at hand.

2005 and beyond

In August 2005, I sat with my dying Dad watching on television as Pope Benedict sailed down the Rhine River to meet the world’s youth in Cologne. It amazed me to realize that the Pope who succeeded Pope John Paul II was a native of the country already chosen for the next World Youth Day! A similar thing happened in 2013. As youth from every continent, except Antarctica, prepared for World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, Pope Benedict resigned, and was succeeded by Pope Francis from the continent already chosen. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis both totally embraced the legacy of their predecessor and World Youth Day continues to inspire youth to follow the path of holiness.

WYD 2023, Lisbon, Portugal

Young people from all over the world are now planning to travel to Lisbon for the next World Youth Day. The host country is planning for Days in the Diocese across Portugal for youth to experience their culture, and they have an enticing program packed with talks, workshops, and events from some of the Church’s best preachers, musicians, and artists. Local families, schools and parishes are preparing to accommodate the many young pilgrims. The Sacrament of Reconciliation and Eucharistic Adoration will be everywhere and teams are already praying for the expected visitors. Pilgrimage groups are forming in nations around the world, and parishes are fundraising to assist their youth to attend. If God is calling you there, He can help you get there, and sustain you on life’s journey. It’s one of the treasures of the Catholic Church in our time. (See your diocesan website, and YouTube and Facebook for the official promo, song in 5 languages, logo, and scenes).

Those who can’t attend can participate in some events via social media, and pray in union with the pilgrims.


Sister Jane M. Abeln SMIC

Sister Jane M. Abeln SMIC has been a Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Conception for 61 years and in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal for 50 years. She taught English and religion in the United States, Taiwan and the Philippines and has various spiritual ministries.

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