This week I arrived in Spain to participate in World Youth Day, an international gathering of Catholic young people intended to celebrate and deepen their common faith, to encounter youth from throughout the entire world and to gather with Pope Benedict XVI. This year we have 140 Alaskans present for this event, with 31 of them being from Southeast Alaska.
Alaska is a long way from Madrid but the connections between our state and Spain extend back over two hundred years in history. The first Catholic Mass in Alaska was celebrated by Spanish explorers in 1779 on Suemez Island near Klawock. The crews of the ships ‘Princesa’ and ‘Favorita’ gathered before a rough timber cross where three priests sang a Mass of thanksgiving for their safe voyage from Mexico to Southeast Alaska. Two hundred and thirty-two years later, 140 young people from Alaska gather to celebrate Mass with Pope Benedict XVI this week in the Spanish capital of Madrid alongside throngs of young people here for World Youth Day. That’s a long way to go to church, not only for Alaskans, but for the 30,000 (plus) young people from the United States who are attending this great pilgrimage.
World Youth Day began in 1984, when Blessed Pope John Paul II invited youth from around the world to Rome. While this event was intended to celebrate Catholic faith, the Holy Father invited all youth, regardless of their religious beliefs, to participate. This open invitation to youth, ages 18-35, to gather as a sign to the world of the unity and peaceful presence of cultures and peoples from around the globe has remained a feature of every World Youth Day.
For the Catholic participants, World Youth Day is an opportunity to deepen their faith and recommit themselves to serving the common good and society. This is reflected in the theme of this year’s pilgrimage: Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, Firm in the Faith.
The Diocese of Juneau website (www.dioceseofjuneau.org) has a number of video clips on the diocesan youth ministry blog. This blog has been a way for parents, family and friends to keep up with the pilgrims and their journey through Europe. The group arrived early in order to take in some of the sites of Germany, Switzerland and France before arriving in Spain. In addition to Madrid, our young people visited Zaragoza, Toledo and Avila here in Spain.
The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, arrived on Thursday and was greeted at the airport by Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia. At that meeting, the King spoke of the needs of youth, including the opportunity to acquire education and jobs.
The Prime Minister of Spain, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, discussed in his separate meeting with the Holy Father the plight of the economic situation in Europe, the need for humanitarian efforts to address the crisis in the Horn of Africa and the revolts talking place in the Arab world.
One million youth from 193 countries have gathered to be here. Of the 14,000 priests present, we have two from the Diocese of Juneau — Fr. Travers, pastor of St. Paul’s, and Fr. Weise, formerly from the Cathedral and currently in Petersburg. I am one of 800 bishops from around the world. Most of our gatherings are like walking into the United Nations, which speaks of the richness and universality of this gathering. The energy level is high and all the people I have spoken to, from taxi drivers and store shop owners to people on the street, have expressed gratitude that such a gathering was taking place in their city. They speak of the great joy they see in the youth present and they hope that the goodness which comes from this event will continue on after all the pilgrims have left.
From my perspective, I am glad that a number of young people from Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, and Yakutat have a chance of being part of this world’s largest gathering of youth. It is my hope that when they return to Southeast Alaska, they will bring the same compassion they experienced here and use it for the common good of our communities.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.