around the world, being different

Several years ago I was very blessed to have the opportunity to do some traveling in South Africa.  I traveled in a way that was probably not atypical for other world travelers in their early 20s.  I met people who were interested in exploring the same places and seeing the same sites and then we would join together and share the expenses.

One day, for example, another American student and I rented a car with two other young women from the UK.  We drove from Cape Town to the Cape Point National Park and encountered some of the most strikingly beautiful scenery that I have ever seen in my life.

Cape Point
Cape Point

One of my most vivid memories from the day was a moment I had with one of these strangers from the UK.  We were walking down the path and sharing a bit about who we were.  She told me that she was a Christian, and I surprised myself by saying “I thought so! I could tell!” And she said “I can tell you are one too!” Together we marveled at how we could tell.  We realized we could only guess. Perhaps it was the presence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was our attitudes, perhaps we were who we hoped to be and we were greeting others with the warmth and unconditional love of Christ, perhaps we were radically counter-cultural like the Gospel compelled us to be.

What we also realized is that one of the other women who was traveling with us also proclaimed to be a Christian even though she wasn’t really much different from anybody else.  Her obsessions and attitudes didn’t demonstrate that she was in love with the Gospel and Jesus.  She didn’t seem to be living a counter-cultural life in any sort of way; she just seemed like a regular person. And, as far as recognizing another Christian by some sort of feeling, we weren’t really sure if she would get what we were talking about.  Certainly it wasn’t our job to judge her faith, but we were probably making that mistake.

Faith, after all, is a struggle for most people in our incredibly complex and secular world.

Not too long ago, as you probably know, I was blessed to have another international travel experience. At the World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, I was crammed into crowds of literally a million young Christians from around the world.  These youth were much more attached to the specific Christian classification of Catholicism.  No matter the flavor of faith, though, for Christians we’re all rooted in the Love of Jesus and good news of the Gospel.  And, what happens in our hearts and prayer should compel us to act, look and live differently from what is common.

At the end of the World Youth Day experience, two million people gathered in a old airfield for an evening of prayer.  We hiked there in the boiling heat on Saturday, set up our camps, and tried to stay hydrated and cool (which seemed practically impossible, considering how hot it was).

When I went in search of water that afternoon, I had an interesting observation.  A million teens and young adults, no matter how they kneel in prayer or study the Catechism, are still a million teens and young adults.  The same temptations hover over good intentions as they would in any other huge crowd of young people.  Then, when people are thirsty and there are language barriers and other frustrations, a spirit of compassion, kindness and helpfulness may not be natural.  In fact, when things are really tough, people naturally look out for themselves, it seems.  In one situation, for example, I had to remind some teenagers to allow an elderly man to get a drink of water.

I realized I had to set aside my idealism for a bit and just pray that everyone would fall in love with Jesus and the Gospel and be the people God made them to be.  Is that what it takes for Christians to really be different?  Is that what it takes for kindness and concern for others to be our directive?

Despite heat-induced mistakes, the young people still blew me away.  Upon my return to the  United States I’ve been asked what my favorite part of the trip was.  After we survived heat, crushing crowds, and a fierce storm together we shared a moment of extreme reverence.  Imagine two-million people kneeling on the ground in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and the power, energy, and awe vibrating into the earth. Imagine the peace that moved around the world because of that prayer.  Imagine the blessing! That was my favorite moment of the trip.

During that profound moment I learned a great lesson.  In addition to kindness and our counter-culturally living, praying makes us different, too.

for the love of God

Millions of ordinary people do all sorts of extraordinary things simply because they love God.  It’s the witness factor of the great things people do for the love of God that brings more people to the faith.  We serve, pray, give, share, help, heal, bless and teach because we love God. And, we travel thousands of miles, operate on little sleep, get filthy and dehydrated in over-100-degree heat to pray in languages we don’t understand.  All, because we love God we do these things.  When it comes to Christian witness, I really hope we are known by our love.

I’m at World Youth Day in Madrid. Sister Katie, from my community, and I are here going through the events with the crowds of youth from everywhere, literally. We’ve been in Madrid for a couple days now and the entire time I have been in awe of the joy and energy that is vibrating through the crowds.  Cheers, chants, and songs of Alleluia unite youth of different languages, races and homelands. No matter where we’re from or what we do in ordinary times, we are all here because we believe and we love God.  The power is big because, well, there’s 2.5 million of us, I’ve heard. No one is too comfortable with any part of it, I am sure. But everyone seems to be thrilled to be adventuring through the fun of faith exploration.

This witness is quite a counter-reaction to the youth riots in the UK.  Here young people are crouching on the sidewalks praying the divine office, reading scripture and  praying rosaries.  People are giving witness talks on street corners and others are singing songs of praise. There’s garbage on the streets under the crowds, but there is no violence, no crime, no looting, no riots.

In fact, only kindness seems to be common here. It’s easy to strike up conversations with people from anywhere and rejoice about the simple things that unite us. I’ve met people from every continent and more countries than I can track. I’m giving away gifts from my community and then grinning as I later see people standing around reading brochures about my my life while they wait in lines or ride the metro.

Last night streets were blocked off and people crowded into every open space possible to be able to participate in the opening mass. We were about two blocks away from the plaza where the mass was held watching on a screen (and we had a really good spot compared to most).  We sat on a grass median for more than two hours waiting for the mass to begin. Here is a picture of how things looked from our spot.

Mass was awesome.  Here is a video so you can see the entire liturgy, much better than I was able to!

I am loving this; I am loving it here. And, I am loving the experience of witnessing young people united in Christ’s love, celebrating the goodness of God.   My prayers is all the waves of love that stir through the people bring more people to Christ who is love.

Thank you for praying with us as we continue on our pilgrimage, all for the love of God. Amen.