NEW YORK — Young Catholics around the world are getting ready for a huge and exciting event with Pope John Paul II. But it's not World Youth Day.
This time, liturgies, music and festivities are being planned in cities around the country — and in several foreign countries — for Oct. 16, the 25 th anniversary of John Paul's election to the papacy. Pope Day, as the young people organizing the events call it, is meant to be an outpouring of love and appreciation of a Pope who has always had a special interest in young adults.
The event is the fruit of past World Youth Days but sprang directly from Toronto's in 2002.
“Seeing the Holy Father's helicopter landing and seeing him come down the stairs really struck me,” said Pope Day organizer Peter McFadden of New York. “He's elderly and frail and could have called in sick. He must have really wanted to be there.”
McFadden said he listened to the Pope like never before.
“He called us to be the salt of the earth, and I realized that meant we were to add flavor to society and to preserve it,” he said. “I thought he deserved an answer.”
On the 600-mile drive home, McFadden and his friends brainstormed.
“We were fascinated by the idea of being ‘the salt of New York’ and decided to organize something and take it to the streets,” he recalled.
This is exactly the sort of evangelization John Paul continually calls youth to do, said Father Owen Keenan, associate pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in Mississauga, Ontario. “The challenge of World Youth Day is not to host a big event but to bring it home.”
McFadden had already formed a foundation in New York that studied the writings of John Paul and printed a 32-page publication based on then Bishop Karol Wojtyla's 1960 book Love and Responsibility. He and friends handed out 13,000 of them in Toronto. He established the Web site www.catholicculture.com as part of this mission and through these efforts connected with like-minded Catholics.
Last year, the group organized the first Pope Day, with 22 known celebrations in six countries. Venues included homes and parishes, campuses and schools.
“Teachers said what they handed out on Pope Day they saw in students’ papers later,” McFadden said.
In Trinidad, there was actually a Pope Week, according to organizer Gail Jagroop.
“I put my religion students into groups to research different aspects of our Holy Father's life and work,” said Jagroop, who teaches high school in Couva. “We held school assemblies highlighting the life of the Holy Father, and every day that week we prayed the rosary for him.”
This year, the celebration will move to Port of Spain and Tunapuna on the Caribbean island, whose population is 30% Catholic.
“Our Holy Father first impacted me when I read the letter he wrote to youth in 1985,” Jagroop said. “Since then, I got hooked. I love him. He's my hero, in a big way. His words convict you and you know he is speaking the truth, and with sincerity.”
That is what youth connect with most, according to Father Keenan.
“Young people are very attracted to his whole message because it presents an ennobling vision,” he said. “He lays down the challenge that we were meant for holiness. The message resonates because it's the truth.”
And it mobilizes them.
“I've had a love for our Holy Father since I first saw him speak at World Youth Day in Denver,” said Lee Pion, pastoral associate at Holy Spirit Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where he's organizing a Pope Day celebration. “It was a life-changing experience for me when I saw half a million people yelling, ‘JP2, we love you.’”
That's a chant that has been heard often since then, and many who have been at such encounters with the Holy Father are involved now in celebrating his life and pontificate. Pope Day events are being held this year in Chicago; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Denver; Spokane, Wash.; New Orleans; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Mexico City; and Nairobi, Kenya.
“Last year, we learned about a secret Pope Day in Saudi Arabia,” McFadden recalled. “Some Polish expatriates there held their own event.”
Saudi Arabia forbids the public observance of any religion other than Islam, according to the U.S. State Department.
Pope Day celebrations can include many activities, but guidelines call for three essential elements: a votive Mass for the Pope, street evangelization to share his teachings with others, and public forums that present the spirituality and thought of John Paul.
They do it because they feel called, said Father Wayne Watts, a Chicago priest who has led large groups to four World Youth Days.
“I was with the Pope in '93, '97, 2000 and '02, and he's had a mantra he has repeated at each one — ‘I love you and we need you,’” he said. “And that's what young people need to hear. The Pope gives kids the courage to evangelize.”
There is no shortage of volunteers for these efforts.
“As far as I know, we had the only Pope Day in the world to be held outside at a city park on a busy mall,” recalled Anastasia Northrop, the organizer of last year's event in Denver. “Street evangelization was really a wonderful experience, a great way to put into practice the Pope's personalistic approach.”
Northrop referred to the philosophy of personalism that has informed so much of the Pope's writings. Basically, it is a way of looking at the world from the point of view of the human person. For John Paul, the starting point is the inestimable value of each person, made in the image and likeness of God.
The Pope's message is twofold, according to Father Roger Landry, the main speaker for the New York Pope Day events.
“The central idea of his pontificate is that Christ fully reveals man to himself, and that man can only find himself in the sincere gift of himself to others,” explained Father Landry, parochial vicar of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis, Mass. “He is convinced that the hearts of the youth are made for this message, and they're hearing it. The way to honor this Pope most effectively is by advancing the treasure of his thought and teachings as they are.”
McFadden's group will have volunteers out in New York City, including Grand Central Terminal, handing out Love and Responsibility and materials on other writings of the Pope. Then, 25 hours of Eucharistic adoration will end with a special votive Mass at the Church of Our Saviour. Father George Rutler, the pastor there, will preach on the gift of the papacy.
“Secular society looks upon authority politically, with contempt, and sees it as an imposition,” said Father Rutler, a nationally known speaker and author. “But this authority is for our sanctification.”
“His whole body is suffering,” he continued. “That is a gift. It's also his glory. This bond of affection is what I want these ‘Papal Days’ to engender and cultivate.”
Affection is clearly motivating this effort, but so is “a simple matter of justice,” McFadden said. “The Holy Father has asked us to evangelize, and here he has served us for 25 years through pain and fatigue. I see it as sort of a requirement for us. We're doing what we're supposed to do, what he has asked us to do. Everyone's lamenting the future of the Church. We put the future of the Church on show last year, and we're doing it again right now.”
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is based in Chicago.