Pope Francis bade farewell on Sunday to one and a half million young people from 187 countries in Krakow for World Youth Day by saying that God wants them “to have the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies” and “to believe in a new humanity, one that rejects hatred between peoples, one that refuses to see borders as barriers and can cherish its own traditions without being self-centered or small-minded.”
He challenged them to do this in his homily at the closing Mass of the festival, which he concelebrated with 70 cardinals and over 800 bishops—including 80 from the United States—at the Field of Mercy (Campus Misericordiae), in the countryside 10 miles from Krakow. At the end of his homily, he announced that the next W.Y.D. will be in Panama in 2019.
Most had camped here overnight after a spectacular vigil of prayer the previous evening.
This final festive celebration took place on a hot, sunny morning, under conditions of maximum security. It began three hours before the Mass with music and dance by artists from Poland and elsewhere, including the famous Israeli singer Noa. The joyful event also included a magnificent Polish choir.
When Francis arrived at Mercy Field, he rode among the ecstatic crowd; everyone seemed eager to touch him, or to take a photo and get his blessing.
“He comes like a friend to everyone, so open, so calm, so very, very friendly, smiling, so joyful like the young people here,” said Dorota, a 30-year-old Polish woman.
In his homily, the pope commented on the Gospel story read at Mass about Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who climbed a tree to see Jesus because he was so small. The homily was a masterpiece of simplicity and profound spirituality.
He told the young that just as Jesus met Zacchaeus, so too “Jesus wants to draw near to us personally, to accompany our journey to its end, so that his life and our life can truly meet.” Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus “changed his life, just as it has changed, and can daily still change, each of our lives,” the pope told the young people—who were at some distance from him because the inner circles were filled with clergy, dignitaries and leading lay people. (They must have felt like Zacchaeus!)
But Zacchaeus “had to face a number of obstacles in order to meet Jesus,” the pope said, and he mentioned three: smallness of stature, the paralysis of shame and the grumbling of the crowd. Young people face similar obstacles, he added.
First, like Zacchaeus, they feel “small of stature” and don’t think themselves “worthy.” This, the pope said, “has to do not only with self-esteem, but with faith itself.”
He reminded them that “our real stature” is that “we are God’s beloved children, always!” As such, “no one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In his eyes the clothes you wear or the kind of cell phone you use are of absolutely no concern. He doesn’t care whether you are stylish or not; he cares about you! In his eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.”
At times in our lives, he said, “we aim lower rather than higher. At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in his love for us. The fact is, he loves us even more than we love ourselves. He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. He is always ‘cheering us on’; he is our biggest fan.” And, “He is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries.”
Zacchaeus faced a second obstacle in meeting Jesus, he said: “the paralysis of shame.” But “he mastered his shame” and climbed a tree “because the attraction of Jesus was more powerful.” Looking at the young people, Francis remarked, “You know what happens when someone is so attractive that we fall in love with them: we end up ready to do things we would never have even thought of doing.”
Recalling that Zacchaeus “took a risk, he put his life on the line,” Francis said, “for us too, this is the secret of joy: not to stifle a healthy curiosity, but to take a risk, because life is not meant to be tucked away.” And “When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit around waiting with arms folded; he offers us life—we can’t respond by thinking about it or ‘texting’ a few words!”
As a 17-year-old, Jorge Mario Bergoglio found his vocation after going to confession; today he told the young, “don’t be ashamed to bring everything to the Lord in confession, especially your weaknesses, your struggles and your sins. He will surprise you with his forgiveness and his peace. Don’t be afraid to say ‘yes’ to him with all your heart, to respond generously and to follow him! Don’t let your soul grow numb, but aim for the goal of a beautiful love which also demands sacrifice.”
He next went referred to the thirdobstacle that Zacchaeus had to face: “the grumbling of the crowd, who first blocked him and then criticized him” and asked, “How could Jesus have entered his house, the house of a sinner!”
Commenting on this, Francis said, “How truly hard it is to welcome Jesus, how hard it is to accept a ‘God who is rich in mercy.’” People “will try to block you, to make you think that God is distant, rigid and insensitive, good to the good and bad to the bad,” but instead, “our heavenly Father ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good’ alike.”
He told his young audience, stretching as far back as the eye could see, “God demands of us real courage: the courage to be more powerful than evilby loving everyone, even our enemies. People may laugh at you because you believe in the gentle and unassuming power of mercy. But do not be afraid. Think of the motto of these days: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy’” (Mt5:7).
Indeed, he said, “People may judge you to be dreamers, because you believe in a new humanity, one that rejects hatred between peoples, one that refuses to see borders as barriers and can cherish its own traditions without being self-centered or small-minded.” When this happens, he said, “Don’t be discouraged. With a smile and open arms, you proclaim hope and you are a blessing for our one human family, which here you represent so beautifully!”
He reminded them that “Jesus looks beyond the faults and sees the person. He does not halt before bygone evil, but sees future good. He does not look at appearances, he looks to the heart.”
With Jesus, he said, “you can help bring about another humanity, without looking for acknowledgement but seeking goodness for its own sake, content to maintain a pure heart and to fight peaceably for honesty and justice.”
He counseled them, “Don’t stop at the surface of things; distrust the worldly cult of appearances, cosmetic attempts to improve our looks.”
Then, using the language of the internet, as he has done several times in these days, he encouraged them to “download the best ‘link’ of all, that of a heart which sees and transmits goodness without growing weary. The joy that you have freely received from God, freely give away, so many people are waiting for it!”
Francis concluded by recalling that Jesus told Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today” and telling the young people that Jesus extends that same invitation to them. Indeed, he said, “We can say that World Youth Day begins today and continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on.”