My experience at World Youth Day is very hard for me to express in words. I have found (in the short 20 years that I have been living), that there are very few experiences that can truly and profoundly have an impact on your life. World Youth Day, as bewildering as it sometimes was, is one of those experiences for me. Outwardly I am still the same person that I was when I boarded the plane to Cologne, Germany, but when I returned to Kennedy Airport a week later I was changed in ways that I am still discovering.
A group of 15 people, 7 from Philadelphia and 8 from St. John’s embarked on a journey to Cologne, Germany where thousands of other youths from all around the world were to gather for a week long celebration of faith. The focuses of the week were the journey of the three magi and the Eucharist. It is said that the remains of the three magi are in the largest gothic cathedral in the world, which is located in the heart of Cologne. The cathedral was a constant reminder of how our journey through Germany was paralleled to the journey of those holy men.
As I arrived at our hotel (which was right on the Rhine River), I found a beautiful city full of beautiful people.
The opening ceremonies of World Youth Day were held at a soccer stadium right outside the city of Cologne. We were supposed to take the train, but they were too full so we realized that we were going to have to walk. The sidewalks were packed with people carrying their countries’ flags and chanting. It was a true celebration and nobody cared that we had to walk about four miles to get there. Walking onto the grounds of the stadium, I was just trying to take it all in.
Thousands of people were gathered to celebrate mass. Entering the stadium was a whole other experience. We walked through the tunnel into a roar of voices. There was chanting, singing, and the whole stadium was doing the wave. It was incredible. And then the mass started.
It was said in at least four different languages. We had books so we could follow along in our own language, but it almost did not matter because the Catholic mass is the same wherever you are. All the rituals and responses are the same and it occurred to me that God truly transcends our language. I never realized it would be possible to distribute communion to a soccer stadium full of people, but they did. It was one of the most beautiful, most powerful sights I have seen.
Afterwards there was an eruption of joy from everybody there, cheering and clapping. So many people from so many cultures all gathered for one reason. The love that was felt was simply a work of art.
This event really set the tone for the rest of the week for me. I was ready to deal with the fatigue that came from going to bed late and waking up too early, and walking almost everywhere because the trains were too full. I was ready to deal with the crowds of people everywhere we went and to handle sleeping on the ground and freezing all night at Marienfeld where we had an overnight pilgrimage.
World Youth Day 2005 is something beyond words, but the inspiration and changes are felt and spreading through the people that have experienced it. I just want to thank the University for allowing me to have this experience. It was a beauty.