In the summertime, the faithful youth of the world gather.
Last month, millions of young Christians, including a conglomeration of teens from the Fargo-Moorhead area, convened in Poland for World Youth Day — an event begun in 1985 by Pope John Paul II.
I’ve often lamented missing the boat on World Youth Day. By the time I learned of its existence, my ship had sailed. But I’m grateful to know these events are happening and igniting the souls of our youth — our future.
Though likely the largest such gathering, World Youth Day has plenty of smaller siblings.
The same weekend of this year’s main event, I traveled to St. Paul for a regional youth rally, attending as a chaperone with 1,800 young people. A Lutheran pastor-friend recently attended a similar gathering in Colorado with 1,100 youth there.
Through our experiences, we each brushed shoulders with what World Youth Day must be like. And though with not nearly the diversity of language and culture, our respective gatherings certainly matched the larger one in spirit.
Though I grasp for just the right words to express such a soul-spiking event, exhilarating, hope-filled and life-giving can be a start.
While reading social-media updates from fellow conference attendees afterward, I caught some World Youth Day updates, too, including photos showing a vast sea of multi-colored attire of young people from all corners of the Earth, each praising God together.
“The Church is irrelevant, they said. Young people aren’t religious, they said,” one such post began. “Today in Krakow, over 2 million young people disagreed while celebrating Mass with the Pope.”
I nodded, reliving memories of the weekend past.
But further on in the thread, a “Davy Downer” interrupted the party, noting “well-studied trends” showing young people are losing their religion. We need to admit most teenagers at World Youth Day likely were just out to have a good time, he contended, and hold beliefs paralleling their lackluster peers.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the fired-up teens I’d just met would say in response.
As a chaperone at the St. Paul event, I had a chance to converse with some of the adolescents to encourage dialogue about the experience. I was touched by their recognition of God in their lives, expressions of a need for more, gratitude for God’s limitless love for them, and a desire to live a life of purpose in response.
Perhaps young people are giving up on God. But it could also just be that the world has given up on them, numbing their natural desire to encounter this loving, living presence, presenting deflections to turn their heads from what is most real.
Many who do encounter God report finding a consistency, solidity and true love unlike anything the world gives. The culture, while presenting plenty of flashy promises, brings instead so many empty ones and ultimately, death without hope.
At the Steubenville North conference, I observed teens with a thirst for something more. I saw their hearts open and tears flowing. I watched them dance freely, hands raised up, the masks and walls they’d been living with dismantled, pure joy on their faces. I caught them giggling to realize God pursues them relentlessly, and will never let them down.
Through them, with God’s power, the world can be set aright.
After the weekend, their troubles undoubtedly awaited. But there’s no doubt some of these young souls were changed permanently, as with youth in Poland.
My own life testifies to this; this very column witnesses to it. I, too, encountered God at a retreat as a teenager, which set me on a path that, despite bumps along the way, has kept me grounded in God, and led me here.
The Lord has only become more real and relevant to me over time, but remembering how it all started at 16 brings me hope for these young people.
The surveys indicate the culture has a tighter grip on our youth than God. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I’m betting the majority of those who’ve had one of these awe-inspiring experiences will never be the same, for the better and benefit of all.
Statistics can illuminate the apparent movement of something based on outside observation, but they cannot uncover the fire of a soul set ablaze. They can react but not always predict.
Perhaps we should just ask the youth themselves. Is God a life-giving reality to you, or completely unmoving? If the second, I dare you to seek God and see for yourselves. If the first, I dare you to prove it.
Life isn’t always easy, but with God at your back, you can transform the world. Go with courage and light, proving the limits of statistics, showing them to be dead wrong.
The world awaits — and is counting on — your passionate zeal.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 20, 2016.]