Today’s youth have often been considered a “lost cause” for the Christian faith and the moral renewal of society — especially European youth.
But if you joined the 25,000 young people gathered at the vigil celebration of the Fourth European University Day held March 11 in Paul VI Hall, you would get a different picture.
These young men and women came from all over Italy and other nations to spend a Saturday evening praying the Rosary with the Holy Father. The vigil began at 5 p.m., but by 4 p.m., Paul VI Hall was already packed with 10,000 people. The other 15,000 youth followed the celebration from the big screens in St. Peter’s Square. I was fortunate enough to get inside the hall with some students from Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University.
It wasn’t a Saturday night disco party.
Before the Pope arrived, the World Youth Day cross was brought from the back of the hall to the stage by a delegation of 11 nations — seven from Europe and four from Africa. Prayers, readings, songs and testimonies were offered via satellite from three countries.
From Francisco de Vitoria University in Spain, Cardinal Antonio Rouco of Madrid led a prayer for the eternal repose of the 192 victims who died in the train bombings that took place in Madrid the same day two years ago.
As scheduled, the Pope arrived at 6 p.m. All of us welcomed him with cheers and a standing ovation. The Holy Father was happy. He surprised us by starting to shake hands with the people who were in the lobby of the hall, outside the big auditorium.
Then, he proceeded through the main corridor greeting as many faithful as he could on his way to the stage. “Ben-edet-to! Ben-edet-to!” we chanted rhythmically.
Each one of the participants received the celebration’s booklet, a candle, a commemorative cap, and a multi-media CD-ROM with the encyclical Deus Caritas Est and other religious and cultural materials. The Holy Father gave printed copies of his first encyclical to some of the young people.
The gathering reflected the catholicity of the Church. It was connected via satellite to groups of young people and their bishops in cathedrals and shrines in Madrid and Salamanca (Spain), Munich (Germany), Fribourg (Switzerland), Dublin (Ireland), Sofia (Bulgaria), St. Petersburg (Russia), Owerri (Nigeria), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Antananarivo (Madagascar) and Nairobi (Kenya).
Students from Salamanca led a brief rite in remembrance of our baptism. Then, young people from five of the participating cities each led a decade of the Rosary in their native language. Every decade was introduced by a special intention, the reading of a Gospel passage, and the Our Father recited by the Holy Father in Latin.
Benedict prayed the whole Rosary kneeling before a beautiful icon of Our Lady that stood at the center of the stage. Behind the Pope and the icon stood the large sculpture of the resurrected Christ. It was a meaningful picture: Mary and the Vicar of Christ lead us to Christ mostly through prayer.
At the end of each decade, we all sang the Latin version of the Ave Maria. How moving. Catholic youth from various racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds prayed to Christ through Mary in a common language.
“This was,” Benedict said in his final remarks, “a beautiful sign of the communion in the Catholic Church.”
The Catholic communion was beautifully expressed in the heavenly singing and music. Some 3,500 young voices from 97 Italian choirs sang in splendid harmony. The professional orchestra was formed by the best musicians from 29 groups.
After the Rosary and the Pope’s blessing, the World Youth Day cross was carried by the youth from Paul VI Hall to the Church of St. Agnes in Rome’s Piazza Navona. The procession was interspersed with the recitation of the Stations of the Cross. Each of the stations was animated by various ecclesial movements with songs, readings and reflections.
No doubt, many young people in our secular nations are spiritually thirsty. How could you otherwise explain that thousands of them are willing to make big sacrifices to pray the Rosary with a 78-year-old Pope and carry a heavy wooden cross through the streets of Rome?
The theme of this vigil was “Christian Humanism as a Way of New Cooperation Between Europe and Africa.”
We may be witnessing the dawn of a new Christian humanism established by the Vicar of Christ and the youth.
Alfonso Aguilar teaches
philosophy at Rome’s
Regina Apostolorum University.