Jul 19, 2012
Flashback: My Summer with the World Youth Day Cross
Hard to believe that we're celebrating the 10 year anniversary of World Youth Day (WYD) coming to Canada and, specifically, the Archdiocese of Toronto. These were grace filled moments not only for our faith community but for all those who were impacted by the Papal Visit. If you were living in the Greater Toronto Area in 2002, you'd be hard pressed not to have come into contact with WYD.
I was blessed to have a small role in helping bring the WYD experience to life in our Archdiocese, seconded from my "day" job to coordinate the pilgrimage of the World Youth Day Cross for the 47 days leading up to this global event in Toronto, June 6- July 23, 2002.
For those unfamiliar with the simple cross, you might compare it to the Olympic Flame, a powerful symbol that first began its trek around the world in 1984. Two crosses exist today as they did 10 years ago, with one a mobile symbol of World Youth Days and the second housed in the San Lorenzo Youth Centre, steps from St. Peter's Square, welcoming global visitors daily.
The cross had spent the year leading up to WYD traveling throughout Canada, raising awareness everywhere it went. The journey of 40,000 km was the subject of books, countless media articles and plenty of photographs. In our vast nation, the cross traveled by airplane, boat, car, snowmobile and most importantly, by foot, carried by pilgrims of every age, ethnicity and background.
About six weeks prior to the start of WYD, 19 "Portageurs", recalling the portages of the First Nations peoples and early Canadian missionaries, made the 543 km pilgrimage from Montreal to Toronto carrying the cross and staying in host families every evening. These 19 young adults from across Canada made a very public witness with stories of prayer, reconciliation and hope that won't soon be forgotten.
I consider working on the pilgrimage of the WYD Cross one of the greatest blessings of my life. In the months leading up the journey of the cross in the Archdiocese of Toronto, I saw unity, cooperation, creativity, prayer and mutual support unlike any other project I'd worked on in my time with the church. Every region of the Archdiocese had a specified number of days with the cross. With more than 220 Catholic Churches, it just wasn't possible to have every parish host it. This really was a blessing in disguise. It forced parishes and lay movements to work together to come up with creative ways to include everyone in the journey. We also challenged local organizers to consider places where the cross was needed for "evangelization". While visits to local churches were certainly appreciated and a necessary part of the journey, we asked communities to look at the greater pastoral needs in their area.
The result? In many ways, a 47 day spiritual buffet that would leave one bursting. The WYD Cross made its way to Georgian Downs Racetrack for a prayer service for those with addictions; it appeared next to shops in Bloor West Village on its way from church to church. You might find the WYD Cross at a local hospital with cancer patients coming out of their rooms for the first time in days to touch this simple piece of wood. It showed up at the Eaton Centre, one of the busiest "marketplaces" in the country alongside big box stores before a stint at Queen's Park subway station, where commuters stopped during the morning rush hour to pray before this amazing symbol of our faith.
The aboriginal community held a service that went all night long with healing services, talking circles and other moments of reconciliation. In Newmarket, the WYD Cross was just beyond 2nd base, participating in a baseball game with youth from local schools before heading to the Canadian Forces Base in Borden.
All this for a simple cross. Nothing fancy - chipped wood demonstrating the wear and tear of the travels, much like each one of us. Imperfect, struggling at times, bruised, wounded but still standing.
There were so many wonderful stories that came from those days with the WYD Cross. I also remember the challenges - one morning where the cross went missing and we thought it had been kidnapped, somewhat wobbly improvised travel devices on the back of trucks leading to a few close calls but leaving the cross still intact. And then there was the CN Tower.
We always thought it would be an amazing experience to take the WYD Cross to the highest point ever (CN Tower) but we were a little unsure as to whether or not the folks at the tower would go for it, I got in touch with them only to find them more than receptive, in fact, quite excited about the whole idea. Our biggest challenge - would the cross fit in the elevator? While the idea of pilgrimage was certainly front and centre navigating the World Youth Day Cross up more than 1,700 steps just wasn't going to cut it. The cross did come apart allowing it to be transported in two separate pieces making things a little bit easier. That said, the CN Tower elevators weren't exactly designed with its proportions in mind.
Due to the heavy schedule of advertised events, we weren't in a position to do a dry run. So on the day in question, we brought our team down to the base of the tower along with some volunteers who would be photographed at the top to see if God was really watching down on us. Let's just say it fit but barely. The length of the cross didn't stand up straight in the elevator but we were able to wedge it in successfully.
From what I recall I always thought that we'd be taking the cross to the outdoor observation area. It was only a day before the "event" that the CN Tower Marketing Manager remarked, "Oh no, you're going right to the top, I mean the top."
Well we never exactly made it to the top the first time around. You see, the day was overcast and once we got to our stop with the elevator we retrieved the cross and managed to get it out and up a set of stairs, essentially steps away from heading outside to "the top". A door opened and all of a sudden I heard a thunder clap along with a lightning bolt that felt as though it struck right beside me. The Marketing Manager who accompanied us shot a quick glance and deadpanned - "God doesn't want us out there today." I agreed. We made our way down the elevator, somewhat deflated but still in one piece (or two to be honest if you were the WYD Cross) and plotted about trying to find a 90 minute window somewhere in the schedule to recreate the experience.
We found that window a week later and repeated the process, although this day turned out to be very clear with no chance of showers or more importantly, lightning and thunderstorms (thank you God). We made our way to the top and this time when opening the door, we saw nothing but sunlight.
Now if you've never been to the roof of the CN Tower (if you have been, you probably shouldn't have been there so I don't want to know) it's an experience that is a) quite the rush and b) a little scary. The cozy observation deck that most tourists enjoy have a full out fence that prevents any possibility of falling down. See the pic at the top of this posting of Sean, a brave volunteer, precariously close to the edge with essentially no guard rail.
Picture me outside with a few other volunteers with a large heavy cross and little protection. A blessed moment? Well yes, probably more after the fact. The short term reality was kicking in for me. I had this terrible thought - what would happen if a gust of wind (trust me it was windy up there) caught the WYD Cross and it flew out of our hands and toppled over the top of the roof. Some unsuspecting individual/s walking the streets of Toronto would surely meet their demise. In addition to the tragedy, I could just imagine the headlines newspaper writers would be coming up with - I certainly didn't want to be the one responsible for what one would term a "career limiting" move for more than a few of us.
So holding on to the cross with a vice-like grip, we managed to hold it down for a few pics with the photographer and the television helicopter buzzing around at eye level up at about 1,800 ft. We had a prayer as well my own personal speed novena, rosary and request for intervention from every saint imaginable to keep this cross grounded so to speak.
Yes, quite the experience and I'm happy to say I wasn't personally responsible for the demise of anyone related to the pilgrimage or the cross itself. In some ways, it feels like it was just yesterday 47 days of blessings and moments that will be etched in my memory forever. The World Youth Day Cross was like that distant relative or cousin who comes and stays with you for a summer. The stories, the memories, the laughs, the tears. You try and explain it to someone else but somehow it's just not the same.
Well my distant cousin left quite a mark in our country and continues to travel the world sharing joy and peace wherever the WYD Cross travels. I'm not part of that experience but for the rest of my life I will cherish those 47 days in June and July 2002.
So when someone asks what my highlight of that summer was, living in the big city? No it wasn't a concert or mega party, it wasn't watching professional athletes or celebrating the purchase of a new gizmo. It's pretty simple. The highlight? I helped carry a wooden cross around my community and made sure it wasn't stolen or fell off the CN Tower. And it was awesome!
Neil MacCarthy is the Director of PR & Communications at the Archdiocese of Toronto.
Posted by Neil MacCarthy at 12:34 PM