The sea: tempestuous, chaotic, and tumultuous. In early Christian literature, the seas were a metaphor for the great unknown. The book of Revelation even compares heaven to a sea of glass, resplendent in all the beauty of the ocean but without the uncertainty that comes with seafaring.
World Youth Day, the international Catholic event that gathers youth from around the world, is held this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The setting is immaculate: high mountains, beautiful beaches, and yes: the sea. Great crashing waves pound the beaches of Copacobana, where three main events will occur this coming weekend.
The sea, of course, can be a metaphor for WYD itself. The uncertainty of arriving a stranger in a strange land, yet bound by a common faith. The chaos of a sea of people, lost belongings, tempestuous weather. Last WYD, in 40-degree Madrid, the heavens opened on the prayer vigil that penultimately caps off the week-long pilgrimage. The same happened during the final event of Germany, 2005, and Toronto in 2002. It seems God has a sense of humour when it comes to humongous Catholic events, and he always sends rain at the most inopportune time to show it. (In the glaring heat of Madrid in 2011, Pope Benedict wisecracked, “you asked for water, and here it is!”) A veteran pilgrim at WYD always knows he is placed at the mercy of the elements.
There is, of course, also the uncertainty of organization at a World Youth Day. How do you prepare a city for an influx of millions of people all at the same time? How do you keep them fed, housed and healthy? Of course, measures are always in place. How those measures work is always the question.
Through the uncertainty, the chaos, and the tempest that is World Youth Day comes an unlikely outcome: a real, lasting, enriching spiritual experience. I have experienced this, as have millions of pilgrims in the thirty year history of the magnificent, crazy, unpredictable WYD events. Like God manifested in the gentle whisper to Elijah, we encounter the divine in the little things, not in the chaotic unknown.
How have you experienced the divine at World Youth Day?
David LeRoss is a WYD veteran and head cameraman at Salt and Light TV. He is from another stormy city, Vancouver, BC, but now lives in Toronto.