As you read this, more than a million Catholic youth will be gathered in Madrid for World Youth Day.
When I hear the reports from the event, I know it will take me back to 2000 when some extremely brave leaders in my church were either inspired by the Holy Spirit or hallucinating and thought it would be fun to take about a dozen teens to Rome, including me.
Not the Rome in Georgia, either. The Italian one.
I will be forever grateful to these adults, who not only braved the perils of Rome, but a Rome that was packed with two million teenagers and young adults. Imagine, if you will, buses and Metros crammed so full their doors couldn't close; chains of hundreds of youth holding each other's backpacks so they wouldn't get lost between the Trevi Fountain and the Coliseum; teens lounging with gelato and dancing at impromptu concerts on every corner; and, most importantly, teens crammed into every church in the city.
We weren't using this word back then, but it was truly "epic."
World Youth Days are weeklong celebrations begun by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1985. Inviting youth from all over the world to come and pray, explaining, "On you depends the future, on you depends also the end of this millennium and the beginning of the next." Every couple summers, youth have gather from all over the world -- in Italy, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and now Madrid. The Masses held at World Youth Days are some of the largest peaceful gatherings of young people on record.
For a 17-year-old whose world had previously consisted of Hilton Head Island (and the then-developing Bluffton), I remember standing in the middle of St. Peter's Square, surrounded by a million fellow Catholics, listening to the pope greet us all in dozens of languages and realizing that my relationship with Christ didn't mean, as a college professor would later quip, that it's "God and me and to hell with thee." If I believed that God was my father then that meant these millions around me (and those in their homes, all across the world) were my brothers and sisters.
As I shared water bottles with people whose languages I didn't understand, swapped souvenirs with teens from continents I may never visit and sang "Jingle Bells" on a bus in August, because it was the only song the hundred or so people on board all knew in English, I realized what the pope meant when he said, "Jesus is living next to you, in the brothers and sisters with whom you share your daily existence." The experience of being one in a gathering of a million inspired me and caused me to realize that my beliefs also came with responsibilities.
Blessed Pope John Paul II would later tell us, "Dear young people, make your generous and responsible contribution to the constant building up of the church as family, a place of dialogue and mutual acceptance, a space of peace, mercy and pardon."
The world holds a lot of uncertainty right now, but we can look at the millions of youth gathered in Madrid this week and be reminded that we are all the children of God, and because he first loved us, we love one another.