People accuse folks of ‘not being present’ during the big events in their lives because all they care about is snapping a picture with their phones, or grabbing a selfie with a celeb. As a photojournalist, I’m the worst. When I’m covering events, I rarely experience the significance of what’s happening before me. In fact, I try to block it out. My full attention is on getting a photo that might tell the story. Add to that the concerns of security checks, language barriers, and finding the best place to shoot — yep, I’m barely even ‘there.’
But in covering an evening of Eucharistic Adoration in the Tauron Arena during World Youth Day, something happened — reality broke through even my necessary detachment.
Contrary to what some think, World Youth day is not a typical youth gathering, and it’s not “Catholic Woodstock.” It’s a pilgrimage that hundreds of thousands of young Catholics make, every other year, to unite in Faith. It’s not a vacation, as anyone who has ever attended will tell you. It’s sleeping in uncomfortable places, eating soggy sandwiches and walking for what seems an eternity. It’s enough of a challenge to make you wonder why anyone wants to participate.
I have stopped wondering; I get it, now.
As I stood in the cavernous space where the English-speaking pilgrims had gathered to worship, I slowly began to feel like I had entered another universe altogether. I was continually distracted by the interactions of the tens of thousands of young people who were embracing each other, sharing, laughing and praying. What was distracting me wasn’t their actions, but what lay beneath them, which was something deep, something beautiful and completely contrary and disconnected from the horror of the headlines.
Otherworldly. It was as though these young pilgrims had traveled thousands of miles to be reunited with their closest friends, never before met.
The evening of prayer and Adoration began, presided over by Bishop Robert Barron and led in song by Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, and I watched as these kids dropped drop to their knees, closed their eyes, many with tears streaming down their faces.
Otherworldly, yes; it became clear to me that this was a true communio — a true spiritual communion between people of all ages, backgrounds, races and ethnicities, united as one in Christ. I became completely swept up in the moment, in the communio. I became united with them, in Christ, as well.
It was breathtaking; it raised the hair on my arms, and I struggled to hold back the tears, because it’s hard to photograph anything when you’re weeping — when you’re immersed deeply in the living Presence of Christ Jesus, with 30,000 other souls, right there, with you.
It felt like the entire arena was in a tender, loving embrace.
In that moment I never wanted it to stop; I never wanted the night to end. We were getting a glimpse of heavenly peace, and everyone knew it.
This is why you should care about World Youth Day, why it matters, and why if the Holy Spirit nudges, you should make every effort to follow through. I left the arena thinking, “Why would any rational human being want to deprive themselves of this intense joy?”
The nudge I personally have received this week, over and over again, has been “Co-operate with Grace.” If my first response was to shrug, “Sure, why not?” Now, I know. Why not, indeed?
I walked into the arena prepared to simply do a job, and we all get so wrapped up in what we’re doing — our jobs, our lives, our need to feel like we are fully in control — that we forget about Grace, or being open to it. We forget about (or refuse to accept) the help, and the healing, and the strength that God so badly wants to give each one of us.
I’m like that, too; persistent in rebellion. In the life of faith, though, such persistence runs contrary to logic and intelligence. It must be part of our fallen nature, I guess, that causes us to act like petulant children against a Father who truly knows best. We think we know what we want, but in the end, most of us really don’t. God knows what we are created for; he’ll tell us if we ask.
As I left the arena I realized how badly the world needs World Youth Day. It impacts lives in the most powerful and meaningful way; in a matter of days it touches and reshapes souls.
As this week winds down, and the pilgrims prepare to pack up and return to their homes, they will carry something new that they hadn’t before: an experience of suffering, sweat and discomfort, and a sense of heaven that will remain. They will carry the knowledge that there is something greater than themselves, and that this Being, this greatness, is real, and holy, and loving and good.
The answer to all the world’s problems (if the world will only turn) lies in permitting this encounter, of being open to it and then — like the apostles and disciples who have come before us — going out and bringing this experience, this knowledge to their families, friends and communities. The effects, the healing upon the world, would be unstoppable.
If twelve dudes from 2000 years ago could change the world by “cooperating with Grace,” just think what the examples of a few hundred thousand could do.
Photos by Jeffrey Bruno and courtesy of CNA and with grateful support from Aleteia and KAI