August 25, 2005
The Italians have a saying:
Mort’un papa, se fa un’altro.
A pope dies, they make another. Governments rise and fall. Kings lose their crowns; prime ministers, their positions. But the Vicar of Christ continues to lead the Church. “You are Peter; and, on this rock, I will build my Church.” (
Mt 16:18). The promise remains. The Lord is faithful. And the Church grows with more than 1 million young people flooding the city where Trajan was acclaimed emperor in 98 A.D. and where St. Thomas of Aquinas studied under St. Albert the Great in the 13th century. Students have come here to Cologne to learn their faith not as mere doctrine, but as life — exuberant, joy-filled and young.
In the opening Mass at Cologne’s
Rhein Energiestadion, Cardinal Meisner said that this was the first World Youth Day with two Popes. John Paul II, with us from heaven. With us on earth, Benedict XVI. The stadium exploded in applause. John Paul II still with us! My mind flashed back to Rome where 250 of our young people began our pilgrimage. All of us took our turn in line to visit his tomb. A little girl in front of me looked at every marble tomb we passed. She anxiously asked her parents,
“Dov’ é il nostro papa?” “Where is our pope?” The crowds pressing from behind proved her right. We were his. The Good Shepherd himself had entrusted us to his care. We were his, but the young especially. At every mention of the name of John Paul II during the opening Mass, applause loud and long and cheers as well. Young people know a saint when they see one.
The Magi made the journey to Cologne. Not in life, but in death in 1164. Even their relics teach us. Life is pilgrimage. To come to the Lord, we need to journey. Out of ourselves to others. Away from our past to new hope in Christ. Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar are resting in Cologne’s 13th century Gothic Cathedral. For us, these days have not been so comfortable at times. The British Airlines strike left some of our diocesan pilgrims stranded in New York. They made it to Rome. Another airport. A different plane. A long train ride. They did not give up. They are pilgrims. They have a goal. Commitment. Fidelity. Perseverance. That’s the stuff of life.
In Rome, no time was lost. Little sleep, much walking. Over the cobbled stone streets, drenched in the hot Mediterranean sun, we sought refuge in stone churches, and refreshment in trattorias and gelaterias. Walking with our young people, I could not believe their energy. We finished a day packed full with visits to the major basilicas and the catacombs of St. Domitilla. The bus parked next to St. John Lateran, the Pope’s cathedral, was ready to leave. Our young people dashed across the street. They deftly dodged the oncoming traffic and entered
La Scala Santa. These are the Holy Stairs. According to tradition, Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, brought these stairs from Pilate’s palace because Jesus had stood on them before the Roman procurator. With unfeigned devotion, the young people went up these stairs on their knees. Step by step, a little closer to the suffering Christ. Penance is a part of pilgrimage. The penance we choose. The penance we face. Heat and rain, sore feet and airline strikes. No Christian life is complete without taking up the cross and following Christ. Not that suffering and pain are good in themselves. Rather, they teach us to be generous, to value the other and to look beyond this passing world.
Sunday, Aug. 14, all of us in Rome had Mass at St. Peter’s. What a sign of unity! The priests together with the bishop celebrated the Eucharist at the Altar of the Chair with our pilgrims and people from all over the world. Above us, the statues of the Doctors of the Church, Greek and Latin Athanasius, Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine. These four statues, three times the size of a person, symbolically supporting the chair of Peter. Theology and the magisterium belong together. The work of theologians is meant to deepen our understanding of the faith handed on and guarded by the Pope and the bishops.
Beneath us, the tombs of Peter. What a sense of the Church as apostolic! Our faith stretches down the centuries to Peter whom Christ made the Church’s foundation! What an experience of the Church as Catholic! Hundreds of pilgrims joined us! The Church lives in every land and nation, with every language and race. And what a challenge to be truly holy! Sharing the Eucharist, the mystery of the Lord’s death, we are united as one in the Risen Lord. Here is the goal of every pilgrimage and life itself.
[This is the first of two part series on the diocesan pilgrimage to World Youth Day.]