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Homily For the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Gospel readings this weekend reflect the theme that was chosen for the 2002 World Youth Day that was held in Toronto. The theme was “You Are The Light of The World: You Are The Salt of The Earth.” I looked back on what was being said ten years, and fifteen years, after the event.

Massive planning and logistics are behind such events. Safety and medical care of pilgrims is one of the most critical components of any successful World Youth Day. Dr. Katherine Rouleau Medical Director, World Youth Day, 2002 Toronto and her brigade of doctors, nurses and EMS workers were dealing with heat exhaustion, dehydration, World Youth Day 2002hypothermia, heart attacks and seizures, sprained ankles, asthma attacks and more. Over six days the World Youth Day medical team treated close to 5,000 and more than half of them needed the care of a doctor. In one case, a young, mother had brought her new born baby to the temporary medical center. In the sweltering heat, the prematurely-born baby had become deathly dehydrated. A member of Dr. Rouleau’s team quickly assessed the situation and administered necessary fluids.

The baby survived. In fact, nobody died during the massive week-long event that sent young people from around the world into Canadian parishes serving meals to the poor, constructing a Habitat for Humanity home, discovering themselves, their capacity for friendship and the meaning of Church.

Nicholas Pappalardo met his future wife Marta while working on World Youth Day. They have two children and Pappalardo worked at one point in Ottawa in the Prime Minister’s Office. At 22 all Pappalardo had to do was persuade 200 pastors in Toronto to get on board so he could assemble and train 1,000 volunteers who coordinated sleeping arrangements for the 35,000 pilgrims who were billeted in 15,000 private homes. There were also the 118,000 pilgrims to be put up in 395 area schools.

After the planes slammed into World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001, persuading people to trust complete strangers from far-off lands was not easy. He spent a year going from parish to parish to persuade each to establish a hosting committee to match families with pilgrims.

As national director of World Youth Day 2002, Fr. Tom Rosica oversaw a staff of about 300, most of them too young and inexperienced to be reasonably entrusted with the jobs they were doing. They came from 40 countries and spoke even more languages. From July 23 to 28 the team managed a core participation of 145,000 pilgrims from 70 countries. But the final Mass and stations of the cross on University Avenue drew extraordinary crowds — more than half-a-million to see the passion of Christ acted out and projected onto the office towers of a downtown boulevard and then 800,000 to see frail, elderly Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass and challenge a generation to risk everything, to go out into the deep water, for the sake of Christ.

Father Rosica worked together with Deacon Pedro Guevara Mann. As the deacon later related, “My vocation, clearly, was born in World Youth Day,” who was ordained about 10 years after World Youth Day. Guevara Mann certainly didn’t know he was on that path when he signed up as artistic director of World Youth Day. Back then he was a young actor and some-time musician. Working for the Church on this massive event was a major shift from shooting TV commercials and auditioning for plays. By the time it was over, he discovered he wasn’t quite so interested in the working life of an actor.

Ten years later, Guevara Mann was still working with Rosica as a radio host and film producer at Salt+Light TV — the television, Internet and publishing entity established in the wake of WYD 2002.  Father Rosica was still repeating a message he began pitching a year before the crowds gathered. His favorite image for World Youth Day is of a timed-release capsule. “It’s about sowing seeds. It’s not a story of success for a rock concert, but it’s about sowing seeds. It’s little changes that happen, that shift your idea of what it means to be a disciple, what it means to be an apostle, what it means to serve, what it means to work for the Church. It’s not a panacea. It’s not a quick fix. Those who expected the churches to be full and all kinds of other things, they sort of say, ‘Well, what happened?’ ” said Rosica. “World Youth Day is supposed to stir things up and give people new lenses to look at the Church. It’s for the whole Church. It gives the Church hope.”

At 35, Rouleau was one of the older members of the team. But at 45 she knew she was an innocent entrusted with a huge task. “Knowing what I know now, I would have asked a million questions (before taking the job).” Now she teaches University of Toronto medical students things she learned during World Youth Day about leadership, collaboration, trust.

Nobody would say WYD 2002 was just a big Mass, but then again, the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. Maybe it was a big Mass painted on the canvas of an entire country over six days.

The 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto was St. John Paul II’ last. He died in April 2005, the year World Youth Day 2005 was still being planned for August in Cologne in Germany. The Pope was old and frail. He was suffering with the severe effects of Parkinson’s Disease. His hands shook. His speech was slurred. Nevertheless, close to 800,000 young people came out to see him. They braved heat, cold and rain.

Why? What was the message of the Holy Father? It was the same message that we heard in today’s Gospel dealing with “salt and light.”

Jesus offers one thing, and the “spirit of the world” offers another. Saint Paul tells us that Jesus leads us from darkness into light (cf. Ephesians 5:8). Perhaps the great Apostle is thinking of the light that blinded him, the persecutor of Christians, on the road to Damascus. When later he recovered his sight, nothing was as before. He had been born anew and nothing would ever take his new-found joy away from him.

You too are called to be transformed. “Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14).

The “spirit of the world” offers many false illusions and parodies of happiness. There is perhaps no darkness deeper than the darkness that enters young people’s souls when false prophets extinguish in them the light of faith and hope and love. The greatest deception, and the deepest source of unhappiness, is the illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility.

The world you are inheriting is a world which desperately needs a new sense of brotherhood and human solidarity. It is a world which needs to be touched and healed by the beauty and richness of God’s love. It needs witnesses to that love. The world needs salt. It needs you – to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

WYD Toronto was 18 years ago. Why is it important to hear the message from Toronto today? Because Canada needs to hear the message of “Salt and Light” again. It is one of many countries that seem to be choosing darkness instead of light.

The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops recently wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decrying the effort to further expand euthanasia within the country. Trudeau and others want to pass legislation to allow Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) to be extended to mature minors with depression, the mentally ill, and the cognitively impaired.

There are some who openly advocate for the opportunity to officially and legally dismiss particular categories of people. For example, in Iceland, upward of 85 percent of pregnant women opt for the prenatal testing, which has produced a Down syndrome elimination rate approaching 100 percent. In a March 18, 2018 Washington Post article, the author introduces us to Agusta. Agusta was one of only three Down syndrome babies born there in 2009.

An Iceland geneticist says “we have basically eradicated” Down syndrome people, but regrets what he considers “heavy-handed genetic counseling” that is influencing “decisions that are not medical.

“First They Came …” is the poetic form of a prose post-war confession first made in German in 1946 by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy (including, by his own admission, Niemöller himself) following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group:

 

First they came for the Communists, And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

 

Then they came for the Socialists, And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

 

Then they came for the trade unionists, And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

 

Then they came for the Jews, And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

 

Then they came for me …

And there was no one left, To speak out for me

 

It is reported that El Salvador priest Father Óscar Romero once said, “You cannot really have empathy for- and love a person until you look at them through eyes of tears.” These are times when devotion to the Immaculate Heart and the Sacred Heart seem especially prescient. Mary certainly weeps for her lost children. Jesus looks to forgive and heal the darkness in those who would toss away human persons so casually. In the meantime, we are called by a Polish saint to continue to be light and salt in our immediate surroundings.

 

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