St. John Paul II chose Palm Sunday as the first World Youth Day in 1984, pointing out that young people greeted Jesus when he entered Jerusalem.
While World Youth Day is often known for its large international gatherings held every three years, St. John Paul II began the first World Youth Day on Palm Sunday in 1984.
At first glance, it can seem like a strange day to host a youth celebration, but the Polish pontiff did so based on a verse from the liturgy.
He explains his reasoning in his homily for Palm Sunday in 1997.
This act [of handing over the World Youth Day cross] has its own particular eloquence: it is a rediscovery as it were by young people of the significance of Palm Sunday, when they in effect take the lead. The liturgy recalls that “pueri hebraeorum, portantes ramos olivarum …”, “the children of Jerusalem … carried olive branches and loudly praised the Lord: Hosanna in the highest” (Antiphon).
John Paul II quotes from the liturgy of Palm Sunday, which proscribes an ancient antiphon to be sung while the priest and the people process into the church with palm branches.
The current Roman Missal translates the antiphon as follows:
The children of the Hebrews, carrying olive branches, went to meet the Lord,
crying out and saying: Hosanna in the highest.
While this passage is generally meant to refer to all people, not just youth, St. John Paul II took the opportunity to showcase the young people and their connection to the cross of Jesus Christ.
John Paul II continued his meditation on this passage from the liturgy, calling the first Palm Sunday the first World Youth Day.
It can be said that the first “World Youth Day” occurred precisely in Jerusalem, when Christ entered the holy city; from year to year we are linked with that event. The place of the “pueri hebraeorum” has been taken by young people of various languages and races. All, like their predecessors in the Holy Land, want to accompany Christ, to share in the week of his Passion, of his Triduum Sacrum, of his Cross and Resurrection. They know that he is that “Blessed” One who “comes in the name of the Lord”, bringing peace on earth and glory in the highest. What the angels sang above the stable in Bethlehem on Christmas night, today resounds with a loud echo on the threshold of Holy Week, in which Jesus prepares to complete his messianic mission, achieving the world’s redemption through his Cross and Resurrection.
Ever since that first World Youth Day, the Church continues to look to young people on Palm Sunday and encourages them to take up the cross of Jesus Christ and to follow him.