Reflection on World Youth Day, Brazil 2013

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Down the years, the huge gatherings for World Youth Day have been comparatively under-reported. Thus, while there has been much talk in the media was about how Rio de Janeiro will cope with hosting some World Cup matches in 2014 (80,000 per match!) and the Olympics in 2016 ( much larger number), no-one seemed to be aware that Rio absorbed, watered and fed a couple of million young people in July 2013. And it was a grace from God for all who were there.

World-Youth-Day-2013-is-hosted-in-Rio-de-Janeiro-in-BrazilBut, while Rio was beautiful, uplifting and full of energy, it was the previous week in Sao Paolo that really struck me. Our group, co-ordinated by Trócaire, had arranged a programme through some Holy Ghost fathers in the vast metropolis of 27 million people. The rest of the group stayed with families in an urban parish – and I stayed with two Spiritans, one Irish and one German.

In their small fifth floor apartment, I got Fr George Boran’s small bedroom – and he slept on cushions on the floor of the study. There was nowhere else. After 45 years in Brazil, these men were based in very simple surroundings and living a life completely dedicated to building up communities of faith in Jesus Christ.

Whatever the flaws were in the Irish Catholic Church of 50 years ago, there was a missionary zeal that inspired enormous and generosity in thousands of young people. They were prepared to dedicate the whole of their lives to serving people in foreign lands – and seeking no earthly recompense. The focus was on others and not on self. They had spent their lives giving, not hoarding, building up people rather than building up possessions.

imagesWe are coming to the end of a memorable year. In the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI asked us to know our faith better, to celebrate and to share it. The Pontifical Council for the promotion of New Evangelisation has been up and running. And Pope Francis has given a huge fillip to people of faith.

So, in this Year of Faith, what did I learn from our WYD visit to Brazil?

Firstly, we cannot forget the Gospel call to some to sell everything and follow Jesus. (Mt 19:21) A vocation to the ordained or consecrated vocation is a call not to an interesting temporary job but to a way of life that walks with people and is faithful for the long haul. That is because evangelisation is a long and gradual process. Believers need not just a conversion experience but a life-long growth in faith.  As Pope John Paul II said in Knock in 1979, every generation is like a new continent to be conquered for Christ. It is a personal call from God to work at the rebuilding of his Church. It means putting that task before personal preferences.

Secondly, in Rio the millions of young people responded enthusiastically to Pope Francis’ tough challenge. They want to be idealistic and generous to a fault. It is no good to tell them that priesthood or religious life is lovely and attractive. Tell them that the Jesus of the Cross wants people who are prepared to take up the Cross to follow him (Mt 16:24), prepared to die to themselves like the grain of wheat that is sown (Jn 12:24). A vocation to ordained or consecrated life is not a call to a life-style choice.  Discipleship in all its forms is a call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps – and vocations have to be located when the divine call to generosity and the generous hearts of young people are entwined. The new evangelisation will need heroic generosity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

wyd_brasil_2013Thirdly, Pope Francis made it quite explicit at the Saturday night Vigil that, as in the days of St Francis of Assisi, the Church needs to be rebuilt. This is a major job, not just a cosmetic operation. Vocations to all sorts of ministry in the Church are vocations to developing a new way of being and building Church. They are divine calls to become master builders along with the Carpenter of Nazareth. That will take courage. But Pope Francis has repeated the Gospel call of his predecessors, “duc in altum, put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4). That is where you will find a huge catch of fish. The future does not lie in the past. Do not be afraid.

WYD in Brazil was a wonderful experience. But it was more than that. It encapsulated so much of where we are as Christ’s Church, His pilgrim People. Pope Francis calls us all to heroic levels of service to the Gospel. Can we make the call heard by generous young hearts?

Bishop Donal McKeown

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