Like most converts to the faith, I had no shortage of zeal as a young Catholic. Having been baptized during my final semester of high school, I channelled my new-found passion for God into a religious studies degree at Queen's University. But as graduation neared, I had my doubts and they were growing.
They weren't about the divinity of Jesus or the authority of Sacred Scripture—topics that provoked debates during our course lectures on the New Testament. I was troubled instead by how, despite the size of the Catholic Church, I could not seem to find anyone like me.
Having embraced Christianity after a largely non-religious upbringing, I understood that knowing Jesus was an immeasurable gift. Frankly, as a new Catholic, it was just about all I did know, and my enthusiasm compelled me to speak about faith with whomever would listen. Yet when I went to Mass, there were few other young Catholics in the pews. And those who attended seemed reticent to speak about faith. Perhaps they feared—understandably so—that expressing their beliefs would be unwelcome on a university campus. Or maybe they were "cradle Catholics" and could not comprehend its relevance to those like me who were born outside the tradition.
I also had concerns about the institution itself. The parishes seemed insular—catering to their own but content to confine the message of salvation to the sanctuary. At the Vatican level, the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel seemed obscured by pomp, rules and politics. Was attracting young people even a priority?
I almost didn't go to World Youth Day. But with the event just a few weeks away, I called my diocese and was able to take a vacated spot. Looking back, it's hard to fathom that I nearly missed an experience that would revolutionize my understanding of the Church.
The moment I stepped foot in Exhibition Place for the opening ceremony, I found the Catholics "like me" that I had been searching for—hundreds of thousands of them, in fact, who testified to their faith openly and joyfully. The streets were filled with youth from every nation; their religious songs filled the subways and streetcars. It was a coming-out party for young Catholics who were emboldened and unapologetic about their faith.
Toronto had never seen anything like it. The city's commuters, who notoriously keep to themselves, struck up conversations whenever they noticed our red World Youth Day backpacks. As we headed toward Downsview Park for the vigil and closing Mass, the city followed us, resulting in the largest single gathering in Canada's history.
When John Paul II celebrated Mass on Sunday morning, the spectacle was grand, but the message was a simple, eloquent presentation of the Gospel. He told the 850,000 faithful that they faced a choice between "two voices competing for your souls"—the voice of Jesus and the "spirit of the world," which maintained that freedom could be found in "excluding moral truths and personal responsibility."
"Who has the words of eternal life?" the Pope asked us. "That decision is the substance and challenge of World Youth Day."
Like countless others at Downsview Park, I was renewed in my conviction that Jesus indeed has the words of eternal life and that He has never ceased to impart them through the Catholic Church. Not only did the Church's leaders understand my generation, they were inviting us to join in proclaiming its message anew.
I've been given the opportunity to add my voice to this proclamation in the decade since. At a vocations pavilion at World Youth Day, I learned about an organization called Catholic Christian Outreach. CCO is a rapidly growing student movement on university campuses across Canada. Through faith study groups and outreach events, CCO equips students to share the message of Jesus in an accessible way. I served CCO as a campus lay missionary for four years before I started doing similar work in an altogether different medium: television.
Salt + Light Television, Canada's Catholic media ministry, was born on the wings of World Youth Day—it's the spiritual descendent of the 2002 event. So when I began my new career at S+L, I knew I was coming full circle. Today I am one of their on-air hosts and producers. Just as World Youth Day gave me a new understanding of Catholicism, now I enjoy the privilege of sharing this vision of the Church with a new, broader audience.