As I have been reflecting on the 20 years of Salt + Light Media, it’s impossible not to consider the importance of World Youth Day during that time for me and for the organization.
I think many of you are familiar with the way Salt + Light Media (then known as "Salt + Light Television") was born on the wings of WYD 2002 and how we took our name from the theme of that event, “You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth" (Matthew
Also, I've previously told the story of how I was prepared to end up at Salt + Light Media, by being the Artistic Director of World Youth Day 2002
. It is not possible for me to separate my Salt + Light Media experience from my World Youth Day experience.
I first heard of WYD in 1993: there was going to be an event in Denver, Colorado, and that Pope John Paul II was going to be there. I didn't attend, but I did know people who went from Toronto. Then, for the next 9 years or so, I didn’t hear about WYD at all. How did someone like me, who was very active and involved in my parish, not hear about the 5 million Catholics gathered for the final Mass in Manila in 1995? How is it that I didn’t know anyone who attended WYD in Paris in 1997 or WYD 2000 in Rome? I heard about the Jubilee Year 2000, but how is it that I didn’t hear much about its historic World Youth Day? Yet, that is what happens to so many who quietly live their faithful lives in their parish, without much contact with the universal Church.
It was around the time of that WYD in Rome, the summer of 2000, when I heard that the next one would be in Toronto. I had a crazy thought: “Wouldn’t it be fun to direct the music?” At the time I was a humble parish musician: little did I know how my life would unfurl when God planted that little seed in my heart!
That’s my first WYD lesson: God will give you dreams and desires. If your desires match your talents, and then God provides an opportunity, that is usually a good sign that this is God’s will for you.
However in December 2000, as I started working for WYD 2002, I knew very little about God’s plans or how to discern them. And so, even though I was very much in the Church, involved in my parish and considered myself a faithful Catholic, I still needed conversion
WYD changed my life. All of a sudden I understood what it means to be Catholic; what it means that the Church is universal. I also understood the universal call to holiness. We are all created for sainthood. There is no better place to discover this than at WYD.
That’s my second lesson from WYD: You are created for Heaven. We may not think that we are saintly material, but really there’s no other choice. As Pope St. John Paul II already told us at WYD 2000
: “Do not be afraid to be the saints of the New Millennium.” Be who you are created to be.
The calling to be saints comes from an encounter with Christ. You can have an encounter with Christ anywhere and at any time, but what better place than at WYD, where you go specifically for this purpose? Trust me, if you go to WYD seeking Christ, you will encounter him.
Not that it was easy. I worked 20 months for WYD 2002 and, while it was a time of incredible peace, growth and joy, it was also a time of many challenges and frustrations. I’ve said before that my experience of WYD was one of the Beatitudes: blessed are the frustrated, those who have no money, those who don’t have enough time in the day and too much work to do... blessed are those who are hungry. Blessed are those who got lost and never made it to their Catechesis sessions – those who didn’t eat because the food ran out, those who were dirty, wet, sleepy, cold or too hot, suffering from heatstroke – Blessed are those who had to raise thousands of dollars to buy a plane ticket only to have their visa applications denied... Blessed are they, for the Kingdom of God is theirs.
I guess there’s another lesson there.
It is no coincidence that the symbol of WYD is the Cross. In 1984, on that eve that is now referred to as the first World Youth Day, John Paul gifted the youth of the world the Cross of Redemption. This is the same cross that we now call “the World Youth Day Cross.”
The Cross is the symbol of WYD because the Cross is the centre of our Christian Faith. We don’t get to Heaven without the Cross. I can’t say that I completely get it myself, but you will never fully understand WYD nor our Christianity, if you ignore the Cross.
WYD also taught me that, while the Cross is essential, we don’t sit at the foot of the Cross alone. We don’t carry our Cross alone. We also don’t journey on the road to Calvary alone. For many, their whole faith experience is their little parish. I truly believe that every Catholic should go, at least once, to a WYD so that you realize that we are not alone.
World Youth Day also shows us that we have the company of so many others who’ve come and gone before us: we call them Saints. That is why WYD always has patron saints. We walk with each other, and with the saints, especially Mary, our Mother. That is why, next to the WYD Cross, the other symbol of WYD is the icon of Mary. We are reminded that Mary is always there, at the foot of the Cross and she is our Mother. We are not alone!
World Youth Day for me was also an experience of evangelization. I think this is why I enjoyed WYD 2008 in Sydney. We literally went to the ends of the earth, to the land of the Southern Cross to bring the good news. Why? Because, as the WYD 2008 theme reminded us, we had "received power from on high" (Acts
1:8). From Sydney, we went to Madrid in 2011. The theme for Madrid was "Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ; Firm in the Faith" (cf Colossians
2:7). For me this all made sense: we receive power from on high, which strengthens us and makes us firm in the faith. We go because we’ve had an encounter with Jesus Christ. However, we need to receive the Holy Spirit and be firm in our faith before we can really
Pedro and Mary Rose Bacani covering Sydney 2008.
As much as I enjoyed going to Sydney, I have to admit that Rio de Janeiro in 2013 was, by far, the best World Youth Day for me. This was Pope Francis’ first WYD – a Latin American pope at a Latin American WYD. It was also my first WYD as a deacon. The theme happened to be my favourite after working for WYD 2002: "Go and make disciples of all peoples"
28:19). And so, we go!
WYD Rio was also a difficult one for me – I wrote about it at the time
. It was a WYD of surprises, because, as Pope Francis keeps reminding us, God is a God of surprises. It’s not easy to trust, but another lesson I’ve learned from so many WYDs, has to do with trust.
Deacon Pedro with cameramen, David LeRoss and Wally Tello at Rio 2013.
It’s easy to trust when everything is going well. It’s easy to believe and be firm in the faith when things are great. Not so when things are hard. Maybe that is why WYD is a pilgrimage that requires sacrifice; sleeping on the floor (or not sleeping at all), not eating well, feeling too hot or getting wet… For us, as media, the stakes are a bit higher and surprises are not good: Will we raise enough money to go to WYD? Will we have a good internet connection? What if we lose the satellite signal? What if our program doesn't get delivered in time? Programs have to be planned, filmed, edited, closed-captioned and promoted. There are too many moving parts for us to be open to surprises. This has brought me a lot of stress over the last 20 years of WYD coverage. Yet, even in this work of media, we are called to trust.
After Rio we went to Krakow, Poland to reflect on God’s immeasurable mercy. Krakow was also a different WYD experience for me, as I was not working for Salt + Light TV, but on a special assignment with the Knights of Columbus as Artistic Director for the Mercy Centre
Finally, as if things needed to come full circle for me, WYD 2019 went to my home country of Panama. Here we had to reflect on what it means to say “yes” like Mary did. It brought more lessons on trust and surrender.
Deacon Pedro with cameraman, Peter Turek, Producers Rodney Leung, Emilie Callan, and Charles LeBourgeois, and former Production Manager, Justyna Lemieux-Lefebvre, at Krakow 2016.
Which brings us to this week in Lisbon, Portugal. It was pushed from 2022 to 2023 because of the pandemic, and the dates were not announced until last summer. That makes for a quick turnaround: the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus
is ongoing in Orlando, Florida. Julian Paparella, Richard Valenti and I were there to cover the main day of the event on August 1, while Rodney Leung and Pitar Lau are hard at work on the ground in Lisbon and Fatima. Julian, Richard and I will go “in haste” to arrive in Lisbon on the morning of August 3rd.
God is indeed a God of surprises, and so we trust. Perhaps, as the theme for WYD Lisbon 2023 reminds us, that is what Mary was reflecting upon as she “arose and went with haste”
1:39) to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
So we go, in trust, strengthened by the fact that we know we are not alone, that there are 300,000 other pilgrims from around the world walking with us, sharing their talents, expressing their desires, looking for God-given opportunities in order to follow his will. We go together, seeking to encounter Christ, to meet with each other, the institutional Church and the Holy Father, celebrating and learning about our faith. But we go under the Cross, by the hand of Mary and the saints – embracing suffering, yes, but in trust. That is WYD.
I guess that means that WYD is an experience of true prayer.
Stay tuned to WYD Central coverage on Salt + Light TV for all the main events of Lisbon 2023, as well as on our dedicated page slmedia.org/wyd
, and all our social media platforms. We hope you will walk with us, tell us your stories, and to pray with us as we go in haste, to share Jesus Christ, and towards Heaven.
Rodney Leung, Deacon Pedro and Julian Paparella getting ready for WYD. Look for us in Lisbon!
In "Deacon-structing," Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]