By Bishop Edward J. Burns

Bishop Edward Burns, Carl Uchytil, Julia Smith, and Lindsey Jobbins of the Diocese of Juneau explore Paraty—a preserved Portuguese colonial town—near Rio de Janeiro during the World Youth Day pilgrimage.
Bishop Edward Burns, Carl Uchytil, Julia Smith, and Lindsey Jobbins of the Diocese of Juneau explore Paraty—a preserved Portuguese colonial town—near Rio de Janeiro during the World Youth Day pilgrimage.

As many of you know, the plans to go to Rio de Janeiro with the young people of Alaska for World Youth Day with Pope Francis came very close to being cancelled due to the bankruptcy proceedings of the travel agent with which we booked our trip. Nevertheless, the bishops of Alaska took the risk to proceed in salvaging the trip for our youth (who had worked so hard to scrape together the means to go) by putting forth diocesan funds (close to $200,000) with the understanding that fund-raising efforts would be put into place to help replenish those funds. Through it all, there were no guarantees that the money would be recovered, either through the fund-raising efforts or through the upcoming months-long legal process in bankruptcy procedures.

This past Friday, I was informed by the executive director of our Alaska Conference of Catholic Bishops that we were only $5,000 from the goal of recovering our total amount. When I shared this with the staff of St. Paul the Apostle Church, I learned that they had $3,000 of contributions yet to be submitted. With this, I was very pleased to learn that we are only $2,000 from our goal. This is good news!

And with this news, I say— “Thank you!” Your contribution made a trip of a lifetime and a historic moment in the Church a reality for our youth. First and foremost, our Church is committed to our young people —whether it is providing a safe environment for them or making sure that they are given the best catechesis. We recognized that this trip was important, for those who attended and for those who supported this journey. Secondly, it was significant that our young people had the opportunity to witness a historic moment in the Church—the first Latin American Pope on his first trip back to the continent of his homeland since his election.

This journey to World Youth Day was a journey of hope. When Pope Francis arrived, he said to the President of Brazil at his welcome reception, “I do not bring you silver or gold, but what I bring you is a precious gift— Jesus Christ.” These words sum up the focus and thrust of World Youth Day. Pope Francis brought the message of Jesus Christ and celebrated the Eucharist with 3.5 million people at the closing Mass of the World Youth Day events on Copacabana Beach in Rio. Through it all, he challenged the world’s young people with the task of being Christ’s disciples.

World Youth Day began in 1984, when Blessed Pope John Paul II invited youth from around the world to Rome. While this event was intended to celebrate Catholic faith, the Holy Father invited all youth, regardless of their religious beliefs, to participate. This open invitation to youth, ages 18-35, to gather as a sign to the world of the unity and peaceful presence of cultures and peoples from around the globe has remained a feature of every World Youth Day. Pope John Paul II recognized that young people naturally are hopeful, especially if that hope hasn’t been strangled out by messages of despair and a lack of love and justice in their homes and communities. He also recognized that youth need to participate in Christian hope as a living reality. It is in the context of coming together as a people of faith, a people of Christian hope, that youth were able to embark more fully upon the path of life in the spiritual realm.

One of the young people who attended the World Youth Day event in Rio was at Mass with me at the Cathedral, exactly one week after that enormous event. I drew a comparison of Mass with Pope Francis a week previous with 3.5 million people and the current Mass we were celebrating in the smallest cathedral in the US. Whether the venue is big or small, it is the same Lord, the same Eucharist, the same Church and the same experience—it is a journey of hope.

Salvaging the trip was worth the risk. As these young people return from our pilgrimage to their Alaskan homes, I trust that by acts of charity and self sacrifice, the hope that young people are looking for today will bear fruit through such expressions of love and compassion. It is my prayer that the young people who celebrated those days with Pope Francis, the Successor of St. Peter, will also risk much in living their faith for others and professing their love in Jesus Christ.

Again, “Thank you!”