It was hard to find a moment of calm and quiet last week amidst the clamour of the city, heightened by the pilgrims’ songs and shouts as they spotted flags from other countries (apparently Europeans were rather under represented at Rio 2013, if the number of times we got accosted for photographs walking up Copacabana was anything to go by).
It is this that made it so impressive when one word from the Pope could silence a raucous crowd of around one million young people. It is also what made spaces like the ‘Vocations Veranda’ in the exhibition centre of Vivo Rio so special.
All week, amidst catechesis, conferences, worship and prayer, pilgrims had the opportunity to talk about their vocations with one of the volunteers, who were generally priests and religious marked out by the signs around their necks saying: Talk to me about your vocation.
Comfortable sofas, palm trees and hanging tea lights twinkling from the ceiling gave the area an air of intimacy, and people gathered in little groups having animated and intense discussions. You got the sense as you passed by that this was a space in which hearts and minds were raw and open, earnestly seeking their unique destinies.
It was at World Youth Day in Sydney back in 2008 that my own vocation to write and to marriage started to become clearer to me. Indeed, the question of what to do with your life can be one of the most urgent and emotional issues on young people’s minds. It was moving to see pilgrims sitting quietly with arms around each other’s shoulders, comforting each other and praying through their discernment.
Pope Francis seems well aware of this, and has made the vocations of young people a particular focus in his addresses throughout his week in Rio. Speaking to young people back in April, he urged them to stake their lives “on noble ideals”, and to “swim against the tide”, adding “it’s good for the heart, but it takes courage.” In his arrival address to the president of Rio on July 22, he developed this theme further when he talked of the challenge of giving young people “a transcendent horizon for their thirst for authentic happiness and their creativity for the good”.
The question of “how to give them the legacy of a world worthy of human life; and how to awaken in them their greatest potential as builders of their own destiny, sharing responsibility for the future of everyone” was one that he said he would be thinking and praying about throughout the week.
For many young people, the past week has been their first major experience of the Church Universal; their first time seeing so many other young Catholics in one place, even perhaps their first time travelling outside their own countries and parishes.
As Pope Francis said upon his arrival in Rio, “These young people are from every continent, they speak many languages, they bring with them different cultures, and yet they also find in Christ the answer to their highest aspirations, held in common, and they can satisfy the hunger for a pure truth and an authentic love which binds them together in spite of differences.”
The experience of World Youth Day will have planted many seeds in the hearts and minds of young people from all around the world, the fruit of which may only be evident in many years to come. Pope Francis’s call to the youth of the Church to grow into radical forces for good in the world is a compelling appeal that would be difficult to ignore.