VATICAN CITY — Canadian officials, in Rome to review security measures for Toronto's World Youth Day next July 23-28, were quick to give assurances that the event would not only be safe, but would serve as a much-needed “countersign” in a world afflicted by terrorism and war.
The papal trip to Toronto will mark a first for Pope John Paul II — for the first time he has scheduled a short vacation outside of Italy. He is expected to arrive in Canada three or four days in advance of his major World Youth Day ceremonies and then spend a short holiday north of Toronto at an as-yet-undisclosed location.
Vatican officials are also preparing for the possibility of a papal visit to Ground Zero in New York following Toronto, which in turn is likely to be followed by a visit to Mexico City for the canonization of Blessed Juan Diego at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Papal spokesmen still insist that no decisions have been taken on New York and Guadalupe, but the Pope's “NAFTA trip” seems likely, combining as it would three of John Paul's signature initiatives — massive gatherings of young people, the powerful witness of prayer at deeply symbolic sites, and pilgrimages to popular Marian shrines. If it comes off, John Paul's 97th foreign trip may be one of his most memorable.
“International gatherings like World Youth Day are even more necessary as antidotes to the poisons of violence, terrorism and uncertainty which now affect the international scene,” said WilfridGuy Licari, Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See, at a Feb. 8 briefing for the Vatican press corps. “The commitment of the government of Canada to the success of this event is absolute. In reference to security, I can assure you that [we have] taken all the possible measures to guarantee the security of all the participants and in the various event venues.”
“We have an unprecedented amount of cooperation among our municipal, provincial and federal police forces, and we're networking with the world. We've got our finger on the pulse and we feel very confident that Toronto will be a safe venue and these will be safe events,” added Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino, after meeting with high-level Italian and Vatican security officials.
“They don't want a militaristic approach,” commented Fantino, after attending a papal Mass Feb. 2 in St. Peter's Basilica to observe how Vatican security handles papal events. “Obviously the Holy Father is a people-person, and we don't want to create barriers for him.”
Canadian security officials will have a chance to improve over the security situation on the last papal visit in 1984, which included what longtime papal trip organizer Father Roberto Tucci characterized as some of the “most severe” measures taken on any papal journey, which sometimes frustrated the Pope's desire to get close to the crowds. The strict measures were taken then in response to terrorist threats in Québec before the visit.
Fantino and his delegation were received by John Paul, even though a papal audience was not scheduled for their visit. Canadian officials said that the Pope asked to meet the officers.
“It was one of those spiritual moments. We paid our respects to a great man, a man of peace, and received his blessing,” said Fantino.
Despite post-September 11 anxieties, Father Thomas Rosica, the national director of World Youth Day Toronto, said that the original security plan in place before the terrorist attacks was retained after a thorough review. Father Rosica and Vatican officials were quick to emphasize that Toronto, a city which they held up as a model of interracial and multicultural harmony, would be a powerful “countersign” after the terrorist attacks and subsequent war.
“Toronto is a city meant for WYD,” said Father Rosica. “The world is already in Toronto, and the world is getting ready to welcome the world.”
“Toronto is a young city, a secular city not known as a place for pilgrimages. But there are scores and scores of ethnic groups who live together peacefully, and this will offer the world's young people an example of how to live together in peace,” echoed Cardinal Francis Stafford, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which is responsible for World Youth Days.
Father Rosica reported that already 110,000 youth from 120 countries have registered for this summer's event. That figure is higher than the number of regis-trants at a comparable time for the previous World Youth Days in Paris (1997) and Rome (2000). In the end, both those events attracted over 1 million people to the closing papal events.
(CNS contributed to this article.)