I first heard about the World Youth Day in mid-2004, completely by chance when on the internet, I came across a link to the “Weltjugendtag 2005”, scheduled for Cologne, Germany in 2005.
Upon further reading, I quickly discovered that World Youth Day (WYD) was not just another international youth event. In fact, I was greatly impressed when I further realized that the origin of World Youth Day was closely linked to the United Nations International Year of Youth in 1985, when Pope John Paul II, addressed the youth of the world in his Apostolic Letter, ‘Dilecti Amici’, whose theme was, “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you”.
In his letter, Pope John Paul II communicated a strong message of hope, saying “In you there is hope, for you belong to the future, just as the future belongs to you. For hope is always linked to the future; it is the expectation of “future good things””.
When I eventually got onto the plane with a group of seven friends that had come together for the pilgrimage to WYD 2005 in Koeln, Germany, the excitement of traveling outside my country for the first time was palpable. By the end of the two-week experience, I had slowly started to understand the meaning of the “hope” that Pope John Paul II had spoken about in his letter, 20 years earlier. I decided from that moment on; that I would take part in future World Youth Days if possible. I have since participated in the last three editions of WYD, Sydney (2008), Madrid (2011) and most recently in Rio de Janeiro, 23rd-28th July 2013.
My experience in Rio was both a continuation of my previous WYD encounters and a unique moment of personal and communal expressions of solidarity with other young people from many nations. Indeed, the theme chosen for WYD in Rio, “Go and make disciples of all nations”, led me to a deeper reflection on how the experience in Brazil would transform my own community and projects back in Kenya.
I frequently thought of the “nations” beyond geographical boundaries that exist in my own country and that as a young person, I could reach out to: Chronic poverty, exacerbated further by the growing gap between the rich and poor; environmental degradation; strife and tensions more commonly fueled by political…the list was long. It was also a reflection of the situation in the world today, epitomized by the financial crisis and the deepening problem of youth unemployment.
Despite these challenges, WYD in Rio was for me an encounter of commitment, solidarity and charity. As a young Kenyan, I would take great pride in the reputation of my country as a hospitable nation. However, I experienced much more in Brazil, where despite the differences in culture and language, the hosts were welcoming and always available and keen to offer help-whether it was in locating a famous monument like Christ the Redeemer, or opening their homes to host the thousands of pilgrim who blessed Rio with their presence.
Meeting with pilgrims from different countries and learning about their own personal joys, struggles and hope as young people, while discovering the common threads in terms of the challenges we faced was an amazing showcase of solidarity. Solidarity among the challenges, but also in the shared hopes, desires and actions for building a better world. Some of these actions were part of the official program in the days leading up to the WYD week, described as the “mission week”. One such pre-WYD program was the Ignatian project, ‘MAG+S Brasil’ , prepared and run by the Jesuits in Brazil, bringing together about two-thousand pilgrims from over 50 countries. I was part of an international group of twenty five MAG+S pilgrims from Brazil, Kenya and Taiwan who, in the state of Espirito Santo, took part in the work of Fe e Alegria, a social action movement committed to improving the lives of people living in poverty through holistic formation and imparting life skills. Living on a 70 acre farm managed by the movement, we learnt and got involved in organic farming in the vegetable and fruit gardens. We also had the opportunity to visit farmers in the region (Laranja da Terra) and listen to their challenges, such as those of one who explained the difficulties of finding a market and fair price for the tomatoes he grew.
This experience was one that I found especially relevant and inspiring, to my work as the founder/director of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA). As a network that focuses on harnessing the energies, passion and commitment of young people in Africa towards achieving environmental sustainability, World Youth Day in Rio helped me to better understand how care of the environment affects the quality of my relationship with God, with other people and with creation itself. Since education and awareness creation on environmental issues is of pivotal importance to CYNESA, I found both the practical and educational environmental themes embedded into the organizational and other aspects of the WYD program a great sign of hope-for the participants and hosts- that the call to restoring right relationships with creation and with people.
During the WYD week in Rio, Pope Francis continued putting across the message for the need to care for creation. A cursory glance at the man who presided over the main events of WYD, offers several insights that stood out for me. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took public transport to get around the city in his pastoral work. These and other actions made a strong statement about his solidarity with and commitment to the poor, but also serves as an example to young people living in a society that glorifies consumerism and individualism. Upon his election as Bishop of Rome, he chose the name ‘Francis’. St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of ecology in the Church, and greatly inspires many to this day by his example of choosing to live a poor and humble life of service. The choice of the name ‘Francis’, therefore, clearly indicated the intention of the new Pope to renew the efforts of the Church in its missionary endeavor of serving the poor and commitment to sustainable living in caring for creation.
More explicitly, in his homily during the inauguration Mass, Pope Francis called on leaders in different spheres of life to be responsive to the needs of the weakest in society and to the environment. “Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” He went on to point out that this responsibility, this call to be “protectors”, was a duty for all of humanity. Pope Francis took advantage of World Environment Day, celebrated globally every July 5th, to emphasize the importance of avoiding food waste, in a world in which people, especially in the global south, still experience food shortages.
Back to the WYD week, it was no surprise, therefore, that Pope Francis drew attention to the Amazon Basin, and the communities living there, calling for its respect and protection rather than indiscriminate destruction, considering it to be of particular relevance for the present and future of the Brazilian Church and entire society. As a young Kenyan, these concerns expressed by the Holy Father resonated strongly in my mind and heart, bearing in mind the fact that my country is yet to achieve the internationally recommended forest cover of 10%. In the Central Africa region, the Congo Basin, second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity, is also under severe threat occasioned by destruction of forests and poaching, the latter being of particular concern in Kenya too as evidenced by the rise in killings of elephants and rhinos.
Quite curiously, the World Youth Day took place in Rio, just a year after the city played host to the Rio+20 meeting, which provided a global platform to highlight pressing issues in the quest to secure global sustainable development. World Youth Day was also held in the context of an evolving process, the Post-2015 Development Agenda. In my view, Pope Francis did send a message in both words and actions during the World Youth Day, to both the young pilgrims and the whole world, that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Three other principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and which featured prominently during Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil, namely the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, care for creation and solidarity are all elements that are emerging as key in the post-2015 dialogue. However, these elements and aspirations are also shared by the young people I encountered on the streets of Rio, who despite the differences based on where they came from, were united by their faith and the pursuit for justice and peace in a world fragmented by violence and conflict.
Looking forward to the next WYD set to take place in 2016, in Krakow, Poland, the city of Pope John Paul II, founder of the World Youth Days, the personal experience of the program in Rio will certainly be reflected in the work of CYNESA. Our horizon of “nations” will definitely expand as we engage more young people in Africa in our quest to make a positive contribution towards achieving environmental sustainability in cities and towns, but also in our collaborations in the global development agenda through agencies such and UNEP and UN Habitat, both conveniently based in my own city, Nairobi.
World Youth Day in Rio, was for me a call to mission and a renewal of my commitment to solidarity and charity, heeding the call to “Go and make disciples of all nations”. I came away with an even stronger sense of hope that Pope John Paul II spoke about in his Apostolic Letter for the UN International Youth Year twenty eight years ago, and reinforced by his predecessors, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. It is a hope that many other young people share for their lives, communities and life projects, in building a civilization of love and a better world.