How World Youth Day Taught Me to Love the Church

18-year-old me with some of my fellow pilgrims. 

18-year-old me with some of my fellow pilgrims. 

Growing up, I loved Jesus. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of his love and some desire to be in a living relationship with him. I attribute this mostly to my parents, who were (and are) faithful disciples. They read the Bible to us until we were old enough to read it ourselves, we prayed together as a family (mostly extemporaneous, and always speaking directly to the Lord), and were at Mass every Sunday, no matter what.

By the time I got to high school, I had the reputation among my peers as the “super Catholic” girl, and, not knowing anyone else who cared that much about their faith in high school, I started to think that I was super Catholic. The thing is, though, that while I loved Jesus, I hadn’t yet fallen in love with the Church. My parents were sort of protestant-Catholics during my formative years (when I went to college, they started getting into Scott Hahn and returning to the devotional elements of the faith), which meant that I rarely went to Confession, had zero relationship with the Blessed Mother, only knew the names of a handful of non-Biblical saints, had never prayed a full rosary on my own, and the only thing I knew about the Pope was that he had white hair and his name was John Paul. And yes, this was after going to Catholic schools for twelve years (but that’s another story for another post).

In any case, I can pinpoint the moment when I first fell in love with the Church in all of her glory: World Youth Day in 2002. Along with about fifty other Notre Dame students and a couple of young priests, I traveled by bus to Toronto, Canada, to join in prayer with 850,000 other young men and women from all over the world. And what I saw there permanently changed my experience of being Catholic.  

It was my first time to see hundreds of young religious men and women in habits. Their joy was infectious.

It was my first experience of just how universal the Church is (staying up half the night listening to people from different countries singing folk songs in foreign languages will do that).

It was the first time I’d seen hundreds of people my age adoring the Blessed Sacrament.

It was the first time I saw Pope John Paul II in person, and the first time I ever appreciated what it means to have a Holy Father who loves and guides the Church. And yes, I cried when he drove by in his popemobile.

And although I spent the majority of that week in varying states of cleanliness (we had to “shower” in our bathing suits using a hose), attempting to sleep on the floor of an elementary school library with no A/C, standing in long lines for boxes of food, and woke up on the morning of the closing Mass only to find a frog in my sleeping bag, what I most remember is how thankful I was to be Catholic. To be a member of this beautiful, blessed, broken, human, and divine Body of Christ.

Please join with me in prayer for the WYD pilgrims in Poland, that they may all experience, in a new and more profound way, the joy of being Catholic.

Have you been to World Youth Day? Did it change your experience of the Church? Please share in the comments!