My latest runs in the newly revamped Catholic Telegraph, now beginning her monthly, instead of weekly, circulation:
Every year, when the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate releases their survey of the men being ordained to the priesthood, the statistics, facts and figures get bantered about by those who work in the vocation business. The surveys show some consistency, however, in what leads a man to realize the potential of a call to the priesthood. While the direct invitation from a current priest remains the greatest influence in a future priest’s possible vocation; the second factor is usually attendance at one or more World Youth Day pilgrimages. Conveniently enough, as I type this article, hundreds of thousands of youth from around the world are gathered with Pope Benedict XVI in Madrid, Spain, for World Youth Day.
As I reflect on my own time at World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada, nine years ago, what is it about these ‘Catholic Woodstocks’ that elicit the call to the priesthood and/or religious life among the young? I have a few theories:
1) There are scores of young priests and religious among the pilgrims. It seems every group has a fairly newly ordained priest with them. Young, vibrant, joyous religious mingle among the scores of teens. The joy that is evident from those who are still growing into their chosen vocation is infectious, and the teens are drawn to them. During the meal breaks, walking around the common areas, the teens invite the priests and religious over to tell their story, how did they hear the call? In these stories, the teens hear their own story, that even though he or she is now a priest or religious, their childhood was no different from what that teen experienced, and the happiness that they have now can be found nowhere else but in Christ.
2) The international aspect of World Youth Day opens one’s eyes to the breadth and depth of Catholicism that is rarely experienced ‘back home.’ Growing up in a small town, I thought most Catholics were just like me. Heading off to college, I realized that this was not the case. Attending World Youth Day in Toronto, this notion was absolutely blown out of the water. We met Catholics from across Latin America, the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia. In listening to coverage from Madrid, in a two minute span, a reporter met pilgrims from Spain, South Africa, the United States, Iran, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Italy and Germany. This international flavor helps our young people see that the Church is much bigger than just my local parish. And while there is a sense of the immensity of the Church, there is still a strong sense of belonging. Even at Mass with over one million in attendance, it feels as if the Pope is still speaking to me, one on one.
3) While the joy and the fun get all the media attention, the backbone of World Youth Day are the daily catechetical sessions led by the bishops. There is a deep beauty in the intellectual tradition of our faith, that for us as Catholics, faith and reason go hand in hand as we explore the depths of what it means to be Catholic. For many attendees, this might be the first time that they get to explore these depths in a challenging way. (The fact that the new YOUcat was distributed to this year’s attendees is a real bonus.)
4) Last, but not least, the connection with the pope brings it all home. When I attended in Toronto as a chaperone, one of the boys that went was a fairly typical high school student: into sports, girls and not so much into school and religion. I think he attended because his friends were going, and hey, it was a trip out of the country, even if just to Toronto. He was the social butterfly of the trip and loved talking with new folks and peers from around the world. His comment at the end of the week was telling, however, as he reflected: “Before I came on this trip, my heroes were athletes: Michael Jordan, Sean Casey, etc., but now, after spending time in the pope’s presence, there is something different. I can really look up to him and hear that challenge he is giving me.”
As our young people return from Madrid, let us all pray that they continue to be open to Christ call to something more.