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World’s youth drawn to Rome

NCR Staff

A Roman newspaper has dubbed World Youth Day “Wojtyla’s Woodstock,” and in many ways the tag is on the money. When John Paul II is on stage here, pandemonium is the rule: Every papal word, every gesture, threatens to touch off another volley of “Viva il papa!

Yet there’s more to this Aug. 15-20 event, which organizers say has drawn 1.5 million young people from 157 nations, than swooning over the pope. In small gatherings, over the inevitable Roman cappuccinos, and even on the bus, delegates say they’re making connections that foster global solidarity.

“I’ve seen the youth of the world unite,” said Heather Avila, 25, of Ceres, Calif. “Now when I see the news, I’ll feel connected to the places they’re talking about. I’ll feel like these are my problems, too, because I’ve met people from these countries.”

A similar hunger for unity drew Julia Postolov, 26, to Rome. A Jew from Los Angeles, Postolov is among the handful of non-Catholics at World Youth Day.

“I wanted to learn more about Catholicism and participate in interreligious dialogue,” she told NCR. “I have a deep personal conviction that religions are like different languages for expressing the same spiritual concepts.”

“In my country we’ve learned the importance of breaking down barriers,” said Chantal Hendricks, 27, of Cape Town, South Africa, during a break in a faith-building session at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls Aug. 16, where Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze spoke to more than 7,000 young people. “I feel God wants me here to share that,” Hendricks said.

Perhaps the clearest example of a spirit of common cause came in the World Youth Forum, which brought together for three days of talks two young people from each of the 157 nations represented in Rome.

During discussions, a delegate from Haiti pleaded with young Catholics in the First World to work for the abolition of economic embargoes. “They only make the rich richer and the poor poorer,” he said. “Never think of inflicting such a catastrophe on Haiti again.”

It was clear that participants did not think alike. While many spoke of volunteerism, for example, a young Italian argued that this has things backward.

“Paul VI said that politics is the highest form of charity,” he said. “We should work so that volunteerism disappears by building a just society that takes care of everyone, especially the poor.”

Perhaps the most dramatic moment came at a pre-rally penance service Aug. 13. Near the end of the service, the two U.S. participants requested permission to speak.

“I said that we wanted to ask forgiveness for the various ways that our country has hurt others,” said Alex Madrigal, 22, of Miami. “I had talked with a lot of people who said they felt anger at the United States.”

As an example, Madrigal said that a Chilean delegate had explained the resentment that still simmers in his country over the way the American government manipulated Chile’s political process in the 1970s and 1980s.

A Cuban-American who lives in Miami’s vast Cuban exile community, Madrigal then decided to ad-lib an apology for American policy, especially its economic embargo, toward Cuba. “I said I know that we’ve caused them pain, and I wanted to say I’m sorry,” he said.

Moments later, a weeping delegate from Cuba came forward and asked forgiveness for the way her government has treated the exiles. With the bitterness of the Elián Gonzalez case still fresh, participants said it was a powerful act of reconciliation.

The forum crafted a statement to present to the pope on Aug. 19 on behalf of Catholic youth. It concluded: “The very core of a life in Christ is the cry for unity and equality in a world full of diverse cultures and in need of renewal.”

Cardinal James Stafford, head of the Pontifical Council for Laity, which sponsored the event, told NCR that he believes this sort of exchange will produce more than memories. “These young people will be leaders in their churches and their countries,” he said. “They are building friendships here, based on honest respect. As they move into what is increasingly one economic world, this will serve them well.”

Even the high-minded forum, however, had its share of youthful zest. At the closing session, calls went up for Stafford to join a sing-along that involved some body motions and hand jive. The cardinal waited for the chants of “Stafford! Stafford!” to die down before good-naturedly demurring: “I’m 68 years old,” he said. “This is too much for me!”

The eighth World Youth Day of John Paul’s pontificate will close with a papal Mass. During the week, participants attended faith-building sessions led by 323 bishops in 32 languages, met with one another in encounters known as incontragiovani, and attended concerts and festivals.

The logistics of the event defy comprehension. Nearly 10 million pounds of noodles and more than 1.3 million pounds of bread will be consumed along with 6 million bottles of water.

Meals are being served gratis by the Sodexho food conglomerate, which has been rewarded with perhaps the sweetest and certainly the most rare plum in corporate marketing: a papal endorsement. “They make exquisite pasta,” John Paul said, speaking to 25,000 World Youth Day volunteers from his summer residence at Castle Gondolfo Aug. 2. “At least, so they tell me.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000