TORONTO — When World Youth Day organizers said they wanted to stop traffic along one of Toronto's main thoroughfares for a re-enactment of Christ's passion, city officials asked, “You want to do what?”

The task seemed impossible, yet the organizers knew all things are possible with God.

Not only did they succeed in having the Way of the Cross presented in the heart of the city, but they also held the largest gathering of its kind in Canada on July 18-28 for World Youth Day 2002. More than half a million young people from 173 countries gathered to be in the presence of Pope John Paul II, to encounter Christ and to deepen their faith.

The entire event was set up as a kind of mini-Easter, with Friday's Way of the Cross, Saturday's vigil and Sunday's Mass — each event drawing more people than the previous. An estimated 200,000 attended the opening Mass. Two days later 400,000 attended the papal welcoming ceremony. Approximately 600,000 attended the vigil and 800,000 attended Sunday's Mass.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about World Youth Day without mentioning Pope John Paul II. He started the event in 1986.

Confounding those who expected only 200,000, the numbers steadily rose following the Holy Father's arrival in Toronto on Tuesday and his emotional descent down the airplane's staircase.

“He told us on the plane that he was walking down the stairs. How can you say No to the Holy Father?” asked Joaquín Navarro-Valls, press office director for the Holy See. World Youth Day officials said an additional 10,000 pilgrims registered the day after the Pope's arrival.

At the official welcoming ceremony held Thursday, John Paul told the youth, “the aged Pope is full of years, but young at heart.” That youthfulness was exemplified by the Holy Father's frequent smiles and his playfulness as he tapped his hand upon the podium in beat to the youth's familiar cries of “John Paul II, we love you!”

The Pope's energy and vigor was a surprise to many. “Three weeks ago I was in Rome to receive the pallium,” said Archbishop Anthony Meagher of Kingston, Ontario. “At that time the Holy Father could barely stand up and his voice was very weak.” Archbishop Meagher went on to say that it was obvious the Pope draws great strength from the young.

The Holy Father has “been” with the young even when he hasn't been with them physically. “He is on Strawberry Island, but his mind is” in Toronto, said Navarro-Valls, referring to John Paul's retreat prior to World Youth Day. On Friday evening throngs of pilgrims watched a dramatized Way of the Cross, written by John Paul II, while the Pope watched them on television from his retreat.

Then there was Friday's lunch. Continuing a practice he started in Rome in 2000, the Pope invited young people from around the world to join him for lunch at his retreat. “I've asked people of the diocese to take people into their home. I will take people into my home,” the Holy Father said.

The group enjoyed a lunch of salad, spaghetti, asparagus and cake. “I think the Holy Father really liked the cake,” said Anneke Pehmöller, 20, from Germany.

Shirley Tso, a 26-year-old teacher from China, conveyed to the Pope that her people love him. “They love me?” John Paul asked. “Yes,” she replied, to which the Pope said, “It is incredible.”

Gizelle Michael Mijmeh, 25, from Amman, Jordan, summed up the experience of the group. “When I return, I will tell others that I spent time with the representative of Jesus on earth,” she said. “Can there be anything better?”

Moved to Tears

Even for those unable to get close to the Pope, they said simply being in his presence was moving. It was an experience that brought tears to the eyes of many.

“Knowing everything he has been through and the faithful shepherd he has been … in his weakened condition he still came all the way here to see us. That shows his love for us and you can't help but cry when you see that,” said Bobby Garrison from Atlanta.

“I was 12 years old when John Paul was made Pope,” said Father James Capoverdi from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Bristol, R.I. “I've been formed and molded by John Paul II. His vigor and his trying to turn the culture of death has inspired me to try to be holy and orthodox.”

Draped in an Italian flag and leading a group of 30 youth from the Providence Diocese, Father Capoverdi said the highlight of World Youth Day for him was concelebrating Mass with the Holy Father.

“It has reinvigorated my priest-hood,” he said.

At successive events John Paul urged the young to be a “new people of the beatitudes,” to “build a city of God,” and to strive for holiness. “Do not wait until you are older to set out on the path of holiness,” he said. “Holiness is always youthful.”

“You are young and the Pope is old,” said the Holy Father, resulting in the crowd chant, “The Pope is young!”

“Eighty-two or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23,” responded John Paul, “but the Pope still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations.”

Meeting Christ

“I've enjoyed hearing the words of someone who will probably be a saint,” said Molly O'Neill, 23, from Houston. “However, as exciting as it was to celebrate with the Pope, the youth recognize that this was not the key reason for their pilgrimage. The young aren't here just to see the Pope. They're here to meet Christ. It just so happens that the Holy Father is facilitating the encounter.”

The secular media frequently likened the event to a party, but for most of the youth it was far more. They described it as meeting Christ by learning about their faith, participating in the sacraments and meeting others.

On three consecutive mornings, youth gathered with 136 bishop and cardinal catechists in churches around the city. The topics included being salt for the earth, being a light to the world and being reconciled to God.

“I thought the catechesis would be the most boring part of World Youth Day,” admitted John Marotta, 16, of Atlanta, “but it turned out to be very good. A bishop spoke about the Church of the family and human dignity.”

“It's been beautiful to receive the precious Body and Blood of Christ,” said Nicola-Maritza Coombs, 18, of Trinidad. “That is what I will hold in my heart.”

For still many others, they felt they had met Christ in meeting so many people from around the world. A global sea of humanity was present. Americans sat next to Brazilians, Australians next to Polish and Kenyans next to Indians. Many youth carried journals, recording the names and addresses of others they met along the way.

For Ana-Maria Cagalj, 26, of Bosnia-Herzegovina, this was her third World Youth Day. “It's wonderful to see youth from all over the world again — to think together, to pray together and to change things,” she said, dressed in a traditional northern Bosnia dress adorned with gold coins.

This also impressed upon them the universality of the Church.

“When we welcomed the Pope on Thursday, I was struck by the procession of flags,” said Father Greg Paffel of Foley, Minn. “I thought ‘every nation will bow’ to Jesus Christ, the Church and spiritual life. That was an awesome thing to see.”

John Marotta spoke of meeting people from Italy, Ireland, South Africa, Germany and France. “We all share the same love for the Church and the Holy Father,” he said.

The value of such global solidarity was not lost on observers. “This provides an opportunity for a significant portion of the Church to see that the Church is a global community,” said Carl Anderson, president of the Knights of Columbus. “Rich countries meeting their counterparts in poorer countries. This will change the reality of the Church for the future.”

The event was not without its challenges. Youth spoke of their lack of sleep, the hot weather, the rain and the mud, and frequent walks, especially their five-mile trek to Downsview Lands, the site of Saturday's vigil and Sunday's Mass.

“When we started our hike I realized that I had packed too much,” admitted Brenda Maurer, 18, of St. John's Catholic Church in Foley, Minn. “My bag was hurting my shoulder. I realized though that this was my own Way of the Cross. I realized what Jesus did for us, and now I was doing it for him.”

“The real story of World Youth Day is the conversion of hearts — whether little everyday conversions or the big ones like St. Paul,” O'Neill said. “If the young are seeking truth, they're going to find it.”

Byron Alvares, 17, of Toronto, is hopeful that it might transform the Church. “There are many Catholics in Canada, but very few of them go to church each Sunday,” he said.

“The Church in Canada has been hurting, but it is not dead,” said Robin Daniels, 18, from Victoria, British Columbia. “Catholics in Canada have seen what World Youth Day has done in Denver. The same will happen here.”

Tim Drake is the Culture of Life editor.