Pope Francis will travel to Ireland in August to attend the World Meeting of Families which will take place in Dublin. Since the last Papal visit by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1979 Irish society has changed drastically in many aspects, including the religious landscape. The forthcoming visit of Pope Francis will be an opportunity for many Irish youth to encounter the Holy Father, a once in a lifetime experience. During his papacy Pope Francis has demonstrated his capacity to engage with young people. He clearly understands the pressures young people are under today, the challenges they experience, and their fears. At the Vigil of World Youth Day in Krakow in 2016 the Pope explained how fear leads to “the feeling of being closed in on oneself, trapped”. He challenged the 1.6 million young pilgrims present there to go back home and make a difference, remarking that “Jesus is inviting you, calling you, to leave your mark on life, to leave a mark on history, your own and that of many others as well.”
The Pope wants young people to live an active Christian life characterised by a faith that is outwardly visible in acts of kindness, love, and mercy. He challenged them at World Youth Day in Krakow to reach out into their communities and to “offer the best of yourselves”; and to “take the path of the ‘craziness’ of our God, who teaches us to encounter him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the friend in trouble, the prisoner, the refugee and the migrant, and our neighbours who feel abandoned”.
One of the places Pope Francis may visit during his visit to Dublin is the Capuchin Day Centre in Church Street which provides over 700 meals daily, and 1,500 food parcels weekly to the homeless and poor of the city. In July 2013 hundreds of young people saw the facility at first hand when they came to participate in ‘Rio in Dublin’, the biggest Irish gathering to coincide with the celebration of World Youth Day in Rio De Janeiro. It was heartening to witness the goodness and joy of the young people present on that occasion, showing their love of Christ and desire to serve Him.
Often the goodness of young people can be overlooked. In my experience of youth ministry it has been very encouraging to observe an openness among many of the young people I have encountered to the faith. I have seen how young people can be responsive to a message of hope and joy, and personal testimony to the power of faith and its relevance in the society of today. The culture they live in may be challenging but young people have an important role in sharing the joyful message of faith, in evangelising their peers, and witnessing to the relevance of religion in society at large.
The busyness of a world often preoccupied with the need for instant communication is something Pope Francis is very aware of, and in his message for the 33rd World Youth Day, celebrated this year at a diocesan level on Palm Sunday, he remarks that “prayerful silence” is needed “in order to hear the voice of God that resounds within our conscience”. He explains that “God knocks at the door of our hearts”, and “longs to establish friendship with us through prayer, to speak with us through the Sacred Scriptures, to offer us mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to be one with us in the Eucharist”.
While the media and the culture of today may dismiss the relevance of the church and the Christian faith, research has shown the benefits of the practice of religion. In an address ‘Spirituality and religion in psychiatry: an introduction to the research evidence‘, given at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Annual Meeting in 2011, Consultant Psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry at UCD Patricia Casey outlined how “religion may allow people to attach a ‘purpose’ or meaning, to their suffering”. She explained that some people “draw strength from their specific belief in the love of Christ who Himself suffered and understands their needs during the present difficulties”.
I have experienced how my deep faith in Jesus Christ has sustained me through difficult moments in my life, including in times of challenges to my mental health. I was deeply moved by my first pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, especially the closing Vigil with Pope John Paul II. I grew up coming to know about Pope John Paul and had listened to the memories shared by family and friends of his historic visit to Ireland in 1979. In Toronto Pope John Paul was 82 and visibly frail and suffering ill-health, yet he had a great joy in his heart for the young people. He spoke powerfully in his homily at the closing Mass remarking that the world “needs to be touched and healed by the beauty and richness of God’s love”. It is a world which “needs witnesses to that love”, he said.
My experience at World Youth Day in Toronto that summer helped me to realise that I was not alone in my faith, and it gave me a desire to immerse myself in opportunities which came my way to celebrate my faith with other young people at home. While there were many subsequent challenges in my journey of life over the years that followed, I can say with certainty that I have experienced the healing love and mercy of God through my faith in gradual, incremental, but profound ways; the love and care of the God who says to each of us in our hearts “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).