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World Youth Day offered glimpses of the Church at her best

The event was joyous and uniting - and no doubt fostered many vocations

World Youth Day appeared, even for those of us who watched from afar, to be the Church at her best – joyous, united, drawing energy for evangelisation from the Cross of Christ, the sacraments and the company of the saints. No doubt vocations were born and strengthened there, as mine was in Manila 24 years ago, and has been the case for so many of my students over the years since.

Herewith some observations on the week.

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Nearby Venezuela, embroiled in a crisis as it seeks to free itself from the murderous petro-communist regime of Nicolás Maduro, held the world’s attention. Pope Francis decided that the Holy See would, in effect, keep its counsel on Venezuela, hoping for the best but saying nothing.

The Holy Father explained that he was “terrified of bloodshed” on the plane home.

The leader of the national assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared Maduro illegitimate and therefore, according to the constitution, declared himself as interim president pending new elections. Guaidó chose Plaza Juan Pablo Segundo for the declaration, a deliberate homage to the pope of non-violent liberation.

Guaidó has the backing of Venezuela’s Catholic bishops, and has been recognized by the United States, Canada, Brazil Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom demanded that Maduro call fresh elections within eight days, pledging to otherwise recognise the opposition leader as president. The European Union joined in that same ultimatum.

Maduro has the support, critically, of the Cuban-backed military, which is keeping him in power. Internationally, he is backed by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Holy See remains neutral, leaving it to the local bishops to stand in solidarity with the suffering people.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley, one of the Holy Father’s closest advisers and on hand for WYD in Panama, publicly took a different line, expressing his desire that the Venezuelan military would back Guaidó. It was a year ago that Cardinal O’Malley publicly rebuked Pope Francis for his bungling on sexual abuse in Chile, which contributed to a volte-face on the part of the Pope. Will it work a second time?

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St John Paul II may have looked askance at Holy See diplomacy this past week, but he would have been delighted to see that the statue of Our Lady of Fatima travelled from the shrine on “pilgrimage” to Panama for WYD. Pope Francis has put Our Lady on the road before, bringing her to Rome in 2013 in order to consecrate his pontificate to her protection.

At the conclusion of WYD, it was announced that Lisbon would host WYD 2022 – partially explaining why Our Lady’s statue had travelled from Fatima. The Holy Father did not make the announcement himself as is the custom. It was left to Cardinal Kevin Farrell to do so. No explanation was given for the change, but there were reports in December that Vatican officials were miffed that word had leaked out in Portugal. Perhaps that’s why Pope Francis limited himself to noting that the “venue of the next WYD has already been announced.”

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Confessions are a big part of WYD, but not everyone is able to get to them. Prisoners, for example. It was moving to see the Holy Father visit a juvenile prison, not leaving them out of WYD, and personally hearing Confessions. Every priest who has ever visited a prison was no doubt buoyed by that inspiring scene from Matthew 25.

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One of the Church’s most beautiful liturgical rites is the dedication of an altar. Panama’s cathedral of Santa Maria La Antigua has just completed a seven-year renovation and took advantage of the papal visit to have the new altar consecrated. “May we not allow ourselves to be robbed of the hope and the beauty we have inherited from our ancestors,” Pope Francis noted in praise of the restoration.

Vatican News noted that it was the first time a pope had dedicated an altar in the Americas. Yes, but not the first time at WYD, as Benedict XVI dedicated a new altar in Sydney’s cathedral in 2008.

But it was the first time two liturgical oddities were seen. The rite calls for the celebrant to remove his chasuble for the anointing of the altar, and it appeared that Pope Francis was not wearing his papal cassock under his alb. It would likely be the first time a pope has appeared in public not wearing his cassock. (In 2008, Benedict removed his chasuble to reveal cassock, alb and dalmatic, as bishops used to wear on more solemn occasions.)

Another novelty occurred when the local archbishop said the Offertory Prayers and the Preface, before the Holy Father resumed his role as principal celebrant for the Canon of the Mass. Such a division of sacerdotal labour is neither permitted in the Roman Missal nor was it envisioned in the particular Missal for this papal trip. The Holy Father did not appear to be indisposed, so another explanation will be, one hopes, forthcoming.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca