The chief executive officer and national director of World Youth Day 2002 hosted Pope John Paul II — and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims — in Toronto. A priest of the Congregation of St. Basil, he has served World Youth Day since being appointed by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 1999. Register features correspondent Tim Drake spoke with Father Rosica in Toronto.

What has been the biggest challenge in putting World Youth Day 2002 together?

There have been lots of challenges with this. The world scene has been one of the most difficult challenges.

I never realized that world events can impact so much, even on a daily basis, on what this event would turn out to be. The biggest, of course, was the event of Sept. 11. As I watched those images that day on television I remember thinking, “Oh my God, what is this going to be for us?” And then the situation of economic instability in several South American countries, and the war that broke out in Afghanistan, and the very difficult situation in the Middle East which has affected all of the Arab countries and many, many Christians.

The media reported that approximately 400,000 people attended the welcoming ceremony, 600,000 attended the vigil, and 800,000 attended the Mass. Did the number surprise you?

Yes, I was very happy. I've never been worried about numbers. This is not a story of numbers.

The numbers is the game of the world, for me it is what lasting impact does this have?

The very fact that in this day and age — just stop and think — that an old man, infirm, can bring together that many people in the name of the Gospel, in the name of goodness, and the name of peace, is a miracle.

What has been a highlight for you?

I watched the young people praying around the Holy Father's chair, touching the chair and [later] touching him and it was quite remarkable. It was truly astounding to see that kind of response. These are not religious fanatics or teen-gers on some kind of a high because some superstar was in their presence. These were young adults who were up there, and they caught the message. The communication that exists between them and the Holy Father is a deep one and a significant one, and is a model for the rest of us.

It's common to see young people in tears in the Pope's presence. What accounts for the connection that the young feel with the Holy Father?

There is certainly the emotional element, but this is much more than emotion. I've been in concerts where young people carry on. This is something much more significant. This is young people saying that they are in the presence of goodness. I know some very hard-nosed, hardline and very cynical people. There were no dry eyes at the airport on Tuesday including in the media pool, and there haven't been many dry eyes since.

What is it that you hope the youth will take away from World Youth Day?

First of all, the whole purpose of World Youth Day is to get to know the person of Jesus Christ — to fall in love with Jesus Christ. When you embrace Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel it is inevitable that you will accept the Church. Jesus Christ, in the Gospel and the Church, gives birth to community and we need the community. Therefore, the whole purpose of World Youth Day is introducing people to a living, breathing person that is forever young and invites people into a concrete expression of community.

In what ways have you seen youth coming to Christ here?

In unbelievable ways. It's a very moving thing for me. Over the past year I thought I was losing it a couple of times because when I was with the kids, with the World Youth Day cross or at different things, I found that there were a lot of tears. One can easily try to explain that away as fatigue, but it is not fatigue.

I think what this whole experience has done is touch the core of humanity. I know all of the people involved in the different ceremonies. They are from across the country. I know the commitment. This is not photo opportunities that we present here. Nor are we into doing a soundbite World Youth Day. These are about speaking of conversion and transformation of the Church and of culture. And certainly here in Toronto something extraordinary is happening here … something much bigger than the numbers, the eventsand logistics.

Have you been pleased with the media coverage of World Youth Day?

I am very grateful for what they have done and the manner in which they have done it. They are doing something beautiful for the world. This is not for the Church, this is for the entire world. We needed something of good news and the good news they have transmitted is outstanding.

Some coverage has dwelled on the difference of opinions in the Church. Have you noticed such views among the youth at all?

Those are issues of the media reading into the lives of kids. Those are all adult issues. That's my generation and the older generation. Talk to the young people. It's their story. They will tell you — and then we get very upset with them when they don't tell us what we want to hear. World Youth Day is not about polls or taking a poll.

What will be the long-lasting story of World Youth Day 2002?

This whole experience has touched us as a Canadian people. It has reminded us of our deeply Christian origins. It has reminded us that though we may boast of distances and vastness of the country we can become very close together. Linguistic barriers have crumbled. There is a tremendous unity.Hopefully we have become more generous, kinder and more hospitable. And my deepest wish is that we become people who re-enact the beatitudes every day.

Are you hopeful that it may bring a renewal to the Church in Canada?

Oh yes, it can't help but do that. With the work and effort of so many people, many people on the fringes have drawn a little closer and they realize that this institution must be doing something good.