Five years ago yesterday, I watched in joy as the clouds parted and the sun beamed down upon the sodden ground at Downsview where 850,000 pilgrims had gathered to participate in the Papal Mass at the climax of World Youth Day. Some of the overnight campers had left already, driven away by heavy rains, but for those who persevered to the end, the reward was glorious.
At the time I was an ecumenically minded adherent of a Baptist church, one I'd been attending for nearly a year. I believed in gleaning whatever was of value in any Christian denomination, so I wasn't about to miss a chance to see and hear one of the great spiritual leaders of our age. Even if I didn't accept everything the Catholic Church taught, on many issues Pope John Paul II was clearly on the side of the angels. What a turnabout from his visit to Toronto in 1984, when I'd denounced the "sexist, homophobic" tyrant with such vehemence that after one outburst I felt compelled to gingerly ask one potentially offended co-worker whether he was Catholic. Uh, no, actually he was Jewish and didn't really see what the fuss was about--whew. But I digress.
World Youth Day brought a spiritual glow to our beleaguered city. On the subway, in the streets, especially on a pedestrianized artery running through my neighbourhood, I saw pilgrims with their distinctive burgundy and tan backpacks--even now, seeing someone with one of the backpacks gives me a little thrill of recollection. I struck up conversations with a few visitors, wishing them well even as I stumbled over quite what to say. For the most part I offered just a knowing nod of recognition: we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
On the Friday I had joined a few friends outside the Royal Ontario Museum to watch the great and terrible pageantry of the Stations of the Cross.
And now here I was, standing on my own in the midst of a great crowd of young people, who were cheering this frail old man as if he were a pop star. "John Paul Two, we love you!" This celebrity business I could do without, but when the Mass began, I was deeply stirred. What serenity and dignity! And what a powerful message of hope and lasting truth in his homily.
About the sexual abuse scandals then wracking the Church in the United States, the Pope maintained a careful reserve, reminding us of the good work being done by so many good and faithful priests. Had I been closer to the scandals I might have reacted differently, but it seemed to me that this was not the time or place for the airing of the Church's dirty laundry. In keeping with that same attitude, I recently heard Archbishop Collins say that a bad priest reveals nothing of what Christ and the Church are like--he tells you only about his own sordidness--while a good priest is a clear window pane, allowing the light of Christ to shine through.
I didn't receive the Eucharist, of course--I knew better than that. I didn't really understand the Church's logic, but I was perfectly prepared to play by the rules. I don't remember feeling particularly left out. As I recall, I just prayed while everyone else lined up at the multitude of stations.
In the evening, I made my way to my local laundromat, where I encountered a group of pilgrims, from Peru, I think. They needed help with the instructions on the machines. In fractured Spanish, I chatted with them about the work of the Holy Spirit, and what a blessing the whole event had been. I might well have told them I was satisfied with the Baptist church as at least a temporary resting place; I was still largely partial to the Protestant approach to Scripture and no doubt gave them an indulgent smile when they talked about some of the Catholic "distinctives" for which I couldn't see any solid warrant. We agreed to pray for each other, and we prayed for Christian unity.
I would go on to submit to baptism by immersion the next spring (despite having been baptized as an infant) and to become a full member of the Baptist church, but less than three years after World Youth Day came to Toronto, I resolved to enter the Catholic Church, and another two months later I was finally received into it. Deo gratias.