“Well, we played mafia a lot.” I responded, when my parents asked me what I did on World Youth Day.
They looked at me, dumbfounded.
“It’s this game where you sit in a circle and have to act in different roles to solve a mystery before you all die. There was one round in particular,” I recalled, delighted, “where Jeremy kept killing Elisha, but I kept saving him, so absolutely no progress was made for like five rounds, but it was hilarious.”
“But….World Youth Day?” Father pressed.
“What did you do?” Mother insisted.
And I realized that the reason it was difficult for me to articulate what I did on World Youth Day was because it wasn’t what I did that I remembered. It was what God — and others — had done for me that bore significance.
Yes, I carried the gifts with Gemma before 20,000 people at the all-American Mass. Yes, I sang a cappella at Czestochowa on a balcony before the Black Madonna, at a Mass led by Archbishop Sample while thousands crowded below. Yes, I had marched for seven hours—barefoot part of the way, ‘cause I thought it would be cool—to wind up at the vigil site where I meditated and encountered the presence of God as I never had before.
But it was thanks to the dedication of Michal Horace — director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s youth ministries and a World Youth Day official — to the organization of the all-American Mass that Gemma and I shared that opportunity. It was Archbishop Sample’s seniority that lifted us up to that balcony. It was Daniel and Sarah’s moleskin that made it possible for me to walk the seven hours back to our hotel, and it was Carmelite Brother Matthias Lanbrecht’s guidance that enabled me to open my heart to God.
I especially remember that meditation with Brother Matthias, because it was the moment I discovered the true spirit of World Youth Day. Two million candles shone through the darkness that night, as Catholic rock music obliterated the silence. I had been feeding my curiosity with Brother Matthias for a few hours, asking him questions ranging from, “So, do you wear clothes under that?” to the mysteries of the Trinity and the Eucharist. I didn’t grasp them—I guess that’s why they’re called mysteries—and I asked him if he could teach me how to meditate.
He heartily agreed, and, after walking me through the first few steps, said, “Now, let go of your surroundings. If you find your thoughts have strayed, simply return to God’s presence. This reunion is in itself an act of love.”
If your thoughts stray? There was so much noise, and I was exhausted. What was I supposed to be doing? I was supposed to be finding God’s presence. But where could He be?
A palace, of course. I thought to myself.
So I imagined myself to be in a palace—the palace of Knossos at Crete, history nerd that I am—but God was not there. I stepped into another room. The Forbidden City stood imposing before me, but God was not there, either. A panic swept over me: where could He be?
And so I ran—from room to room, palace to palace—fruitless in my findings. I was so busy searching that I once again forgot what I was supposed to be looking for. Then, just as a black portrait caught my eye, Brother Matthias’s words reached my ears, grounding me: “If you stray, just come back to God. Find Him within yourself.”
I looked back at the portrait, and I my vision became black obsidian. Where was God?
And….that exhilaration lasted for about three seconds, but what happened next was even cooler, because then I saw faces. Slowly at first, but then in quick succession. They were the young—or the young at heart—singing songs of their native lands, bearing their standards with pride. I probably just saw them because that was literally what I had just been seeing for seven hours that day, but the image seemed appropriate because it struck a note of truth: in our acts of love and mercy we had built a sort of Heavenly Kingdom in Krakow—a place where God’s presence could be frequently felt.
So naturally, I didn’t want to leave it. I didn’t want to go back to that earthly realm where my secular school, Willamette, awaited me. I didn’t want to sit in those classrooms, watching my peers nod to the voices of the most enlightened men and women in the state, telling them the truth that there was no truth, and how absolutely sure they were that there were no absolutes, and how all beliefs are relative—that sentiment included. I didn’t want to listen as my friends announced their goals to give birth to dogs instead of children. I didn’t want to debate on the side of “conservatives” who more readily acknowledged the personhood of a legal document in a filing cabinet than a child in the womb.
But God does not always call us to what we want; sometimes God has something better in store for us.
“So you’ll transfer out of Willamette?” my parents asked.
I thought for a moment. “I asked Matthew, my flight buddy, on the way back about how we could be religious without living in bubbles, alienated from the world. He told me that it was good to live in protected spaces of spiritual nourishment, but that we ought to venture from them to bring that nourishment to others. I don’t think God is calling me to transfer. I think I am exactly where he wants me to be.”
“So it was like mafia!” I exclaimed. “We all have our parts to play, and we all worked together to accomplish a goal before we die!”
“Yeah, you go work on that analogy….” Mother said, eyebrow raised.
“I shall.” I grinned, and settled down to write.
The writer is a student at Willamette University and attends St. Joseph Church in Salem.