One of the greatest cathedrals in the world stands above the Rhine River at Cologne, Germany. Important in the history of the Church in Germany, the gothic cathedral also is known worldwide as the shrine of the Magi, the three "wise men" who came from the East bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to pay homage to the newborn Savior at Bethlehem.
This month, many thousands of young people from all over the world are going to Cologne for the World Youth Day Observance. Over 500 from Chicago are traveling as Archdiocesan pilgrims and a few hundred more are being sponsored by other groups in the Archdiocese. I look forward to being with them, taking part in the events, celebrating the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist and giving some of the talks.
The World Youth Days are a legacy of the fruitful pontificate of Pope John Paul II. They have been held in different parts of the world over the past 20 years, and they have brought together millions of young Catholics to pray, to learn about the faith and its expression in Church teaching and to celebrate with the Pope. It was sometimes remarked that such grandiose moments have no permanent effect. That claim was belied at the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The men and women in their 20s and 30s who filled St. Peter's square in Rome to file past the late Pope's body explained they were there because their lives had been changed during one of the World Youth Days. These are not only passing celebrations; they are, or can be, an instrument for lifetime conversion.
Pope Benedict XVI will be attending his first World Youth Day as Successor of St. Peter. On Sunday, Aug. 21, he will offer Mass. The vigil with him the night before will offer the young people a chance to meet him and exchange with him on a personal level. They will have the opportunity to see and hear our new Holy Father at close quarters. Many around the world will be watching to see how this Pope relates to young people, especially those from his own birthplace.
Each World Youth Day has a theme. The theme this August is inspired by Cologne, its cathedral and the Magi who are venerated there. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the wise men who inquired about Jesus' whereabouts declared, "We have come to worship him." (Mt. 2:21) Pope John Paul II, when he convoked this World Youth Day months before his death, wrote, "It is a theme that enables young people from every continent to follow in spirit the path taken by the Magi whose relics, according to a pious tradition, are venerated in this very city and to meet, as they did, the Messiah of all nations." When one meets the Lord, one worships. What else is there to do?
The catechesis or basic instruction in the faith will be given once again by bishops from all over the world, myself included. The instructions are given in the mornings in various language groups, followed by Mass with the group catechized during the morning. The instructions are given in different parts of the city and in the neighboring areas. The catechesis is done in the context of the pilgrimage that each group will be making to the Cologne cathedral to visit the shrine of the Magi. The goal is to make in microcosm the journey of life together with those who accompany us on the way to our own encounter with the Lord.
In their pilgrimage to the cathedral, the young people will be invited to walk in spirit with the Magi who first sought Christ without an adequate understanding of who he really is, along with the saints of Cologne and of Germany. Some of these, like St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Blessed Adolf Kolping, are saints of more recent times. Pope John Paul II had written, again in his message for this World Youth Day, "The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. Many have gone before us along this path of Gospel heroism, and I urge you to turn often to them to pray for their intercession."
The Magi are presented in the Gospel as seekers of truth, driven to give up everything that was familiar to them in order to understand and follow God's ways. Since it is beneath human dignity to live in falsehood, the search for truth is necessary if we want to live in freedom. If not anchored in the truth about God and ourselves and the world God created, freedom inevitably degenerates into irrationality and tyranny. The truth about Jesus is that he is truly God and truly man, and that fundamental truth will be explored during the catechetics sessions. From the truth about Christ comes insight into how he wants us to follow him. True worship includes all of life. We have the commandments of God and of the Church, but behind them is a basic surrender of one's whole self to God in Christ. True worship leads one to conversion. Without being related truly to God, our lives become idolatrous. We give to ourselves or to other creatures the honor and allegiance that belong to God alone. All the saints strive to be of help to others, but always their first concern is to worship and to serve God.
The encounter with Christ in Cologne will, of course, be centered on our encountering him in the Eucharist. Again, Pope John Paul wrote, "I would like the young people to gather around the Eucharist as the vital source which nourishes their faith and enthusiasm. Bring to your encounter with Jesus hidden in the Eucharist all your hopes, your desire for love. The catechesis will serve as a reminder that the Eucharistic presence is not limited to the Mass. Eucharistic presence follows communion. By learning to worship Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament, young people, and all of us, can experience his living presence, receiving many fruits of holiness and healing."
Because Jesus is present in the Eucharist in Chicago as well as in Cologne, joining the young people in Cologne will be easy, if we keep them in our hearts during our prayer at Mass and, in prayer, use the catechetical themes for our own reflection and meditation here. The Magi needed signs from nature, stars and constellations, in order to begin their journey searching for the truth. Once they encountered Christ among his own people and came to worship him, they were guided back to their own country by angels. They had moved from inquiry into God's purposes through nature into historical revelation. They had become part of God's people, directed by angels, God's personal messengers, rather than by stars.
Their journey is ours today, and my prayer is that we accompany one another on it and invite others to join us. Please keep the young pilgrims to Cologne and, with them, Pope Benedict XVI in your prayers. God bless you.