I’ve always had trouble transitioning home after awesome experiences. On great weekend retreats as a young adult, I would spend the week after not really sure what to do. I would be a bit moody, and often find myself in conflict with a loved one. One of the things this did over the years was cause me to build up emotional barriers, to make these experiences easier to deal with, both while being there, and then again when coming home.
World Youth Day won’t let me do that.
The thing about it, is that it’s just so big. I reflected on the multitude of blessings in ‘To be Blessed’, and I can’t stop thinking about them. There are Catholics who go on once in a lifetime sorts of pilgrimages for just one of the opportunities we had in Krakow, and we ran into so many that I lost count! With any experience like this, there’s the temptation to try to recreate it, re-capture it, and re-make it at home. I know this temptation. I remember back when I was a fairly young youth minister, I took a particularly powerful experience of praise and worship, and tried to force it on a group of young people who had other expectations and spiritual needs, and without getting into too many details I can safely say it was probably the worst evening of ministry in my career. I was trying to forcibly jam my past emotions and experiences into a present that didn’t call for them. Even worse, I was doing so for my own satisfaction.
Coming home, I’m faced with the same temptation, to force everyone I spend time with to sit through endless stories, videos, and photos of the experience, without really asking if they are interested, or if this will make a difference, or to post endless World Youth Day follow ups on social media when really all I’m doing for myself is trying to keep the immediate experiences of the journey fresh.
None of this is to say that I mean that everything should just go on, business as usual, with nothing different in my life. That would be a waste. In fact, one of the most challenging parts of the experience was hearing Pope Francis (I’m going to paraphrase) command us to go home and not waste this amazing opportunity we have had the gift of participating in. When you sit there, in a crowd of 2.5 million other Catholics, and the Pope himself tells you not to go home and do the same old things, and to see ‘couch potatoes’ in the faith, it’s a pretty big kick in the pants. Not only that, but we aren’t coming home totally the same people. Karen and I talked about it on the flight, about how we were going to live when we got home. How would we deal with any backlash on social media after being more open about our faith in a public setting than either of us has before? How would we find or create ways to give and receive mercy at home?
The last revelation I’d like to share here, is that the answer is within the experience. Everything at World Youth Day was so big. The crowds, the passion and joy of the pilgrims, the experience with our families in Days in the Diocese, the ‘celebrities’ (whether the relics of Saints, the Pope, or the big name Catholics like Bishop Barron). It’s impossible not to recognize that I could never recreate the fullness of the experience at home… I’m just too small for that. I don’t mean it in a negative way, simply in a pragmatic one. We were standing in a crowd that was bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced, and still, the 2.5 million of us still only made up about ⅕ of 1% of the entire Catholic Church. And yet, among all of these people, the bigness of what we were celebrating was undeniable, and keeps popping up over and over.
Rand’s testimony about her life in Syria, this story of Christina Shabo, an Iraqi refugee, born under a tree in a refugee camp, who was at World Youth Day and prays regularly for those who have killed some of her family members and destroyed her home, or Bishop Barron’s reflection on World Youth Day, calling the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the celebration he presided over “one of the great experiences of my 30 years as a priest”.
While at times being such a small piece of such incredible ‘bigness’ is overwhelming, it’s also incredibly empowering. Among this crowd of little building blocks that each of us is, huge things are taking place. Among this crowd there are Catholics whose tiny actions, like Christina praying for Isis each day in her Chaplet of Divine Mercy, are bringing a grace and goodness to the world that are so much greater than any one of us, or even all of us together can accomplish. Perhaps the lives of St. Maximillian Kolbe and of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati illustrate this better than any. Kolbe was only one of millions killed at the hands of the Nazis, yet his one small act (small in the scale of what was happening, not in the sense that sacrificing one’s life is a small thing) saved others’ lives and brought enormous grace into one of the worst places in human history. Pier Giorgio’s life was not comprised of great and grand actions. It was his small ones, bringing his friends to Mass before climbing a mountain, giving his train fare to someone in need and walking home, spending a few hours with the sick, simply being joyful for his life and using his gifts, that led to his Beatification. His individual actions were so small, that his parents had no idea that there would be thousands of poor and sick showing up to his funeral, and similarly, the crowds of individuals who came to celebrate his life had no idea he was a Frassati (a powerful and influential family). Yet in all this smallness, God made his life into a great light for the rest of the world.
In our day to day lives it is easy to want the big. As a teacher I want to be popular, I want my students to be the best, I want great test scores. As a youth minister I want crowds at youth group, I want to speak to large groups. As a musician I want to be popular, I want to lead the choir. As a blogger I want thousands to read my words. In this light, I am so grateful for the smallness of being an individual at World Youth Day, because it is such a wonderful and uplifting reminder. None of us are in this world to be ‘big’, but rather to do the small things God has empowered us to do, and let Him make them great. I’ll end with a line from Christina Shabo’s story: “As powerless as you feel as an individual, when you connect with other people who have that same passion that have that same desire, God works wonders”.
- Ryan Fox