TORONTO — In a move that surprised and excited the crowd at a high-energy youth rally at the Toronto City Hall July 28, Pope John Paul II's official message for the next World Youth Day was released here.

The nighttime event, evocative of the vigils held with Pope John Paul II as part of World Youth Days, drew thousands of youth from across Canada to mark the beginning of the official one-year “countdown” to World Youth Day, to be held here July 23–28, 2002.

In a departure from usual practice, the World Youth Day Message for 2002 was not released first at the Holy See Press Office in Rome, but in Toronto. According to senior Toronto officials, the Holy Father himself granted permission to release it only the evening before, in response to a special request.

The message announces that the theme selected for World Youth Day 2002 is from Matthew 5:13–14: You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.

“Dear young friends, Toronto is waiting for all of you who can make it,” writes John Paul II. “In the heart of a multi-cultural and multi-faith city, we shall speak of Christ as the one Savior and proclaim the universal salvation of which the Church is the sacrament. … Come, and make the great avenues of Toronto resound with the joyful tidings that Christ loves every person and brings to fulfillment every trace of goodness, beauty and truth found in the city of man.”

“After two years of planning, tonight World Youth Day has arrived in Toronto, a city known as a meeting place, a city made for World Youth Day,” said Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, national director of World Youth Day 2002, to the crowd, who cheered madly at every opportunity. “Jesus Christ himself is depending upon us to make this all work!”

“The principal hosts of World Youth Day are the youth themselves,” echoed Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, archbishop of Toronto, who led a candlelight procession at the end of the ceremony. “The young people of Canada themselves will host the young from around the world.”

Various testimonies were given by young people, while official greetings came from civic authorities, including Toronto's flamboyant mayor, Mel Lastman.

“I am not Catholic,” said Lastman, who is Jewish, but he confessed that he felt “chills throughout my body” when he attended World Youth Day in Rome last year to represent Toronto. “There were hundreds of thousands of people, and there was no drunkenness, no drugs, no fighting — only love!”

The evening was marked by various Christian musical groups and was headlined by special musical guest Leahy, a Celtic-pop band from Lakefield, Ontario.

The band is made up of 11 brothers and sisters of the Leahy family and, judging from the enthusiastic crowd reaction, will likely be a favorite next year if they are included in the program.

The most moving testimony of the evening came from Justin Trudeau, the 20-something son of the late Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, a man whose own relationship with the Church was sometimes strained though he said he never abandoned his faith and did call for a priest on his deathbed last fall.

Since delivering a eulogy at his father's funeral, Justin has become a minor celebrity in Canada, owing more, it must be said, to his good looks than his status as a high-school drama teacher.

“Je suis canadien français, je suis catholique, (I am French-Canadian, I am Catholic)” he began, explaining how he was raised in the faith, attending Mass and Sunday school, with his famous father reading the Bible to his sons every week. But at the age of 18, Justin stopped practicing and began to look into other religions.

“I told my father that I didn't see that the Church had anything to do with me,” Justin said. “It was full of old people with old ideas.”

But after the death of his brother two years ago in an avalanche, and the death of his father last year, Justin said he began to reconsider his faith.

“In my search I had closed my eyes to my own Catholicism and so I started to rediscover my own religion,” he related. “I discovered that it is not about rules, but about guidance. The Church is a teacher who guides us to ask the right questions, the most of important of which is: How do I do justice to the wonderful gift of life which God has given to me?”

Trudeau's speech was greeted by some with pleasant amazement, as it is not customary for Canadian celebrities to discuss their faith in public.

“Catholicism is alive in Canada, but has been a private thing,” said Father Rosica after the event. “We brought it out into the street last Saturday, and that's what we are going to do next year for World Youth Day.”

Raymond DeSouza returns soon to Rome.