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Pilgrimage of the Youth Cross (1984-2003)



It is known as the "Holy Year Cross", the "Jubilee Cross", the "WYD Cross", the "Pilgrim Cross". Many call it the "Youth Cross" as it was given to young people to take around the world to any place at any time. Here is the story of that Cross.

It was the Holy year of the Redemption (1983-1984). Pope John Paul II felt that there should be a cross - the symbol of our faith - near the main altar in Saint Peter's Basilica where it could be seen by everyone. A large wooden Cross, 3.8 metres high,  was placed there according to the Holy Father's desire.

At the end of the Holy Year, after the Pope had closed the Holy Door, he entrusted that Cross to the youth of the world, represented by the young people from the San Lorenzo Youth Centre in Rome. His words on that occasion were:

"My dear young people, at the conclusion of the Holy Year, I entrust to you the sign of this Jubilee Year: the Cross of Christ! Carry it throughout the world as a symbol of Christ's love for humanity, and announce to everyone that only in the death and resurrection of Christ can we find salvation and redemption"(Rome, 22nd April 1984).

The youth responded to the Holy Father's request. They took it to the San Lorenzo Youth Centre beside Saint Peter's Square, and this was to be its home when it was not on pilgrimage around the world.

The first pilgrimage of the Holy Year Cross (as it was known then) was in July 1984 to Munich in Germany for the "Katholikentag" (Catholic days). It was just a simple wooden cross, so at first, people did not see that it was anything special. Little by little they realised that it was there on a mission by desire of the Holy Father. At the final Eucharistic celebration in the city stadium with 120,000 people present, it was beside the altar for all to see.

Then the youth took the cross to Lourdes, Paray-le-Monial and other places in France. It went to Germany again in September. On hearing this, the Pope said, "They must also take it to Prague, to Cardinal Tomasek". At that time, Czechoslovakia was behind the iron curtain, and the Cross carried there by the young people would be a symbol of communion with the Pope. The Cross returned to Germany on 27 December.

In January of 1985 , a group of German youth brought the cross to Prague in answer to the Holy Father's request. 1985 was International Youth Year proclaimed by the United Nations, and 300,000 young people had a meeting with the Pope in Saint Peter's Square on Palm Sunday. The Holy Year Cross was present at that meeting. That year, the Cross was at youth meetings, was taken on pilgrimage, and led the Way of the Cross in city streets in various parts of Europe: Italy, France, Luxembourg, Ireland, Scotland, Malta and Germany. In December of that year, Pope John Paul II announced that there would be an annual World Youth Day beginning on the next Palm Sunday[1].

In 1986, the Cross was present at the Rome celebration of the First World Youth Day. It was held in Saint John Lateran Basilica on Palm Sunday. For the Cross, it was a year of pilgrimages and meetings in Italy, France and Switzerland .

1987 was the year of the 2nd World Youth Day, the first to gather young people from around the world in one place. It was held in Buenos Aires in Argentina in April of that year. This was the first time the Cross went to the American continent. It was taken there several days before the event. The Holy Father reminded the young people of the origin of that Cross: "The great Cross that presides at our gathering today is the one that initiated all the ceremonies during the Holy year of the Redemption and which I gave to a group of young people on Easter Sunday..."  Then the Cross returned to Europe to be present at youth meetings in Germany, France and Greece. It was also present at the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October.

In 1988, besides being present at the Rome celebration of the 3rd World Youth Day on Palm Sunday, the Cross travelled to Germany and France, and crossed the Atlantic again, this time to Steubenville in the United States.

In 1989, the Cross travelled around the dioceses of the Netherlands, and then in August it went to the 4th World Youth Day, this time being held in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It was among the crowds with the youth of the San Lorenzo Centre to greet the Pope as he arrived for the vigil. It was brought to a more prominent position for the Mass the next morning. Then in October, it made its first visit to Asia where it was present at an International Eucharistic Congress in Seoul in Korea.

In 1990, the Cross was present at the Rome celebration of the 5th World Youth Day on Palm Sunday. It travelled to the American continent twice: to Mexico and the United States. It also visited France, Germany and Italy.

In 1991, the Cross went with the young people to the 6th World Youth Day which that year was held in Czestechowa in Poland. Again, the Holy Father drew the young people's attention to the Cross: "As we keep vigil, the Cross is here in our midst. You have brought this Cross here and you have placed it at the centre of our assembly... The Cross, the sign of God's ineffable love, a sign that reveals that 'God is love'". After World Youth Day, the Cross visited Germany and Switzerland.

In 1992 on Palm Sunday, on the occasion of the Rome celebration of the 7th World Youth Day, the Cross was entrusted to the youth of the United States. During the Angelus on that occasion, the Holy Father said: "The Holy Year Cross - tree of life! It will now pass from the hands of young people from Poland to those of the young people here from the United States. May it accompany you in your path of preparation". Before it began its journey through the dioceses of their country, it was taken to Australia to answer the request of the young people there to host it  for at least a short period of time.

The Cross set out on its journey around the United States during the year 1993, attending celebrations, rallies, conferences and pilgrimages throughout the country. It was present at the 8th World Youth Day that was held in Denver in August. The Holy Father said to the youth gathered there: "Follow the pilgrim Cross; go in search of God, and you will see that he is also to be found in the heart of a modern city". The Cross continued to travel around the US until the end of the year.

In 1994, at the Rome celebration of the 9th World Youth Day in Saint Peter's Square on Palm Sunday, a representation of youth from the United States passed the Cross on to a delegation of youth from the Philippines. The Pope had said in Denver the previous year: "The Holy Year Cross will take us to meet the generous people of the Philippines, so full of faith". Then the Cross was flown to the Philippines to start its pilgrimage around the 79 dioceses of the Philippine islands travelling by boat, on the shoulders of the local youth, and whatever means of transport was available.

The 10th World Youth Day was celebrated in Manila in January 1995. The Cross arrived in Manila before the event and was taken to the youth gathered for the International Youth Forum, an event that was taking place just before World Youth Day. During the vigil on the Saturday evening, the Holy Father said: "The pilgrim Cross passes from one continent to another, and young people everywhere come to together to witness together that Jesus Christ is the same for each one, and that his message is always the same. In him there are no divisions, no ethnic rivalry, no social discrimination. All are brothers and sisters in the family of God." After the World Youth day celebrations, the Cross returned to Rome and visited several towns and places of pilgrimage in Italy.

At the Rome celebration of the 11th World Youth Day in Saint Peter's Square on Palm Sunday 1996, a group of young people from the Philippines passed the Cross on to a delegation of young people from France. The Holy Father said on that occasion: "To embrace the Cross on this day, to pass it from hand to hand, is a very eloquent gesture. It is as if you are saying: Lord, we do not wish to stay with you only for the moment of the 'Hosanna', but, with your help, we wish to accompany you on the way of the cross like Mary, your mother and ours, and the apostle John. Yes, Lord, 'You have the Word of eternal life' and we believe that your Cross is a word of life, of eternal life!" After the Mass, the French youth brought the Cross back to their country, and it made a triumphal entry into Chartres and was present at the evening Palm Sunday Mass. Thus it began its pilgrimage to 90 dioceses or movements, including some in Germany, the Netherlands. The visit to Germany on this occasion was to Berlin where the Holy Father had a meeting with the young people there. The Cross was with the youth as they spent the night in prayer.

The pilgrimage around France and neighbouring countries continued in 1997 until the 12th World Youth Day that was held in Paris in August. To continue the custom begun in Manila, the Cross was brought to the young people gathered for the International Youth Forum. After the World Youth Day celebrations, the Cross returned to Rome.

In 1998, at the Rome celebration of the 13th World Youth Day in Saint Peter's Square on Palm Sunday, a delegation of young people from France handed the Cross over to the young people of Italy. The next international WYD was to be held in Rome in the Jubilee year. During the homily at that Palm Sunday Mass, the Holy Father said: "My dear young people, today the message of the Cross is being given to you again. You who will be the adults of the third millennium are entrusted with this Cross. It will shortly be passed on by a group of French youth to a delegation of youth from Rome and Italy. From Rome to Buenos Aires; from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Compostela; from Santiago de Compostela to Czestochowa; from Jasna Góra to Denver; from Denver to Manila; from Manila to Paris, this Cross has gone on pilgrimage with the young people from one country to another, from one continent to another. Young Christians, your choice is clear: to discover in the Cross of Christ the meaning of your existence and the source of your missionary enthusiasm." After that Mass, the Cross set out to travel the length and breadth of Italy.

The Cross continued its pilgrimage around Italy in 1999. On Sunday 14th March it was with a mass gathering of young people in Turin with a televised linkup with the Holy Father and the Angelus in Saint Peter's Square. It was in Ancona in May when the Holy Father visited that City. The official pilgrimage of the Cross in Italy was opened in the Basilica of S. Croce in Gerusalemme on 14th September.

In the year 2000, the pilgrimage of the Cross around Italy continued, concluding with a walking pilgrimage on the shoulders of 200 young people from Mantua to Rome. They carried it to the young people gathered for the International Youth Forum in Rome where they told them; "We fell very much in love with this Cross ... but we are really happy to give it to you because this Cross is not ours alone: it belongs to everyone and is for everyone. We see this gesture as the end of our pilgrimage but also as the start of a new life where the Cross is not made of wood, but is one we have to carry with us every day". Then the Cross was taken to Saint Peter's Square for the opening of the 15th World Youth Day. The Cross was carried along the "Via Crucis" through the Roman Forum to the Colosseum. It was witness to streams of young people coming to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Circo Massimo, and to a crowd of over two million who attended the concluding Mass with the Holy Father in Tor Vergata.

In 2001, at the Rome celebration of the 16th World Youth Day in Saint Peter's Square on Palm Sunday, the Italian youth passed the Cross on to a delegation of Canadian youth. Then the Cross was flown across the Atlantic and began its long pilgrimage around an enormous country, travelling by commercial airline, light aircraft, dog sled, pick-up truck, tractor, sail boat and fishing boat. It visited parish churches, youth detention centres, prisons, schools, universities, national historic sites, shopping centres, downtown streets, nightclub districts and parks.

In 2002, the Cross continued its journey around Canada. This was interrupted for three days in February when it was taken to Ground Zero in New York as a sign of hope for the people of the United States in the wake of the September 11th tragedy. Then the pilgrimage in Canada continued. On 28th April, a group of young people from Ontario and Quebec left Mary Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal with the Cross, and walked from there to Toronto. These "portageurs" carried the Cross for the next 43 days to the city of the 17th World Youth Day. Throughout its journey, and throughout WYD in Toronto in July, people came to touch the Cross, to embrace it, and to pray fervently. The Cross was with the young people throughout all the major events of World Youth Day, then it left Canada and went to Europe. It travelled in the Czech Republic from August until the end of the year.

Before passing from the youth of Canada to the youth of Germany on Palm Sunday 2003, the Cross made a trip to Ireland. Then, on Palm Sunday, the Pope introduced a new element: henceforth, the Cross will be accompanied on its pilgrimage by the Icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani. "Today I also entrust to the delegation from Germany the Icon of Mary. From now on it will accompany the World Youth Days, together with the Cross. Behold, your Mother! It will be a sign of Mary's motherly presence close to young people who are called, like the Apostle John, to welcome her into their lives." (Angelus, 18th World Youth Day, 13 April 2003). This icon, a copy of a venerated icon in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, was present at the Vigil and Papal Mass of WYD 2000 in Tor Vergata in Rome. The Cross and the Icon are on pilgrimage to several countries of Europe before they visit the dioceses of Germany leading up to WYD 2005 in Cologne.

* * * * *

There have been many testimonies from people who have been touched by their contact with the Cross. These have become more numerous in recent years, or maybe they have just become more disseminated, thanks to the internet. Handwritten testimonies are kept in the San Lorenzo Youth Centre in Rome, home of the Cross when it is not travelling. Testimonies are also to be found in magazines and WYD publications. Some of them ask how two pieces of wood can have such an effect on a person's life.  Wherever it travels, the people ask if it can return again. They see the presence and love of God in that Cross. Through it, many young people come to a better understanding of the Resurrection, and some find that it gives them courage to make decisions about the course their life should take. One of the young people from Canada had this to say: "This cross has had a tremendous impact on all of the nations where it has been present. This was evident to me during the ceremonies when we received the cross from the Italians. They were extremely emotional, crying tears of sorrow because they did not want to give it up. We, on the other hand, were crying tears of joy because we were receiving a powerful symbol that we know will impact our nation."

Pontifical Council for the Laity, Rome, July 2003

[1] World Youth Day would be held every year at the diocesan level from then on. From  1987, with an interval of two or three years, world gatherings of young people have been meeting with the Pope in a different country each time.