Over 30 years travelling the world and reaching out to young people
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 proclaim to everyone that it is only in Christ, who died and rose from the dead, that salvation and redemption are to be found" (Rome, 22 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 away on pilgrimage around the world. The first pilgrimage of the Holy Year Cross (as it was known then) took place in July. The destination was Munich in Germany for the “Katholikentag”. It was just a simple wooden cross. At first sight, people did not see that it was anything special. Little by little they realised that it had come 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.
During 1984, young people took the cross to Lourdes, Paray-le-Monial and other places in France, and it went to Germany three times. 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 that was carried there by young people would be a symbol of communion with the Pope.
In January of 1985, a group of German youth took 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. During that year, the Cross was at youth meetings, it was taken on pilgrimage, and it 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 following Palm Sunday. (World Youth Day would be held every year at the diocesan level from 1986. Since 1987, world gatherings of young people have been meeting with the Pope in a different country every two or three years.)
In 1986, the Cross was present at the Rome diocesan celebration of the First World Youth Day, held in Saint John Lateran Basilica on Palm Sunday. This would be 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 told the young people about the origin of that Cross when he said, “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 held in Rome in October.
In 1988, besides being present at the Rome diocesan 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 diocesan 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 by saying, “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 diocesan 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 goes from one continent to another, and young people from everywhere gather to experience together the fact that Jesus Christ is the same for everyone, and his message is always the same. In him there are no divisions, no ethnic rivalries, no social discrimination. All are brothers and sisters in the one 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 diocesan 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 and 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 (Austria and Belgium) continued in 1997 until the 12th World Youth Day 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 diocesan 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 14 March it was present at a mass gathering of young people in Turin with a televised linkup with the Holy Father and the Angelus in Saint Peter’s Square. The Pope said to them, “In these months, the World Youth Day Cross is on pilgrimage in the dioceses of Italy. Today it has arrived in Turin, where the young people of Piedmont and Val d'Aosta have gathered to welcome it in Piazza San Carlo. To them – who have joined us by television – I offer a special greeting and say: do not be afraid to welcome the Cross of Christ into your life! ...”. The Cross was in Ancona in May when the Holy Father visited that City. The official Jubilee pilgrimage of the Cross in Italy started in Rome at the Basilica of S. Croce in Gerusalemme on 14 September.
In the year 2000, the pilgrimage of the Cross around Italy continued, concluding with a walking pilgrimage from Mantua to Rome carried on the shoulders of 200 young people. They delivered 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 being the end of our pilgrimage and also the start of a new life in which our 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. On that occasion, John Paul II asked, “What do we see on the Cross standing before us, which for 2,000 years the world has not ceased to question and the Church to contemplate? We see Jesus, the Son of God who became man in order to restore humanity to God”. 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 11 tragedy. Then the pilgrimage in Canada continued. On 28 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, and Pope John Paul II mentioned it during the Welcome Ceremony with the words, “It is by walking with Christ that we can achieve joy, true joy! Precisely for this reason he again repeats the proclamation of joy to you today: ‘Blessed are they ...’. Now that we are about to welcome his glorious Cross, the Cross that has accompanied young people on the roadways of the world, let this consoling and demanding word echo in the silence of your hearts: ‘Blessed are they. . .’”. After World Youth Day the Cross 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 for a youth mission. Then, in Rome on Palm Sunday, John Paul II introduced a new element: henceforth, the Cross would be accompanied on its pilgrimage by the Icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani. (This icon, a copy of a venerated icon in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, had been present at the WYD 2000 Vigil and Papal Mass in Tor Vergata in Rome.) The Pope said: “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”. The Cross and Icon then commenced their pilgrimage through several European countries on their way to Germany. The countries visited were: Norway, Spain, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sweden, Lithuania, Denmark, Portugal, France, Ireland, Netherlands and Switzerland. On the visit to Spain, the Cross and Icon were present for the canonisations of several Spanish saints and for a mass gathering of young people with John Paul II.
The journey around Europe continued in 2004. The Cross and Icon were invited to England, Wales, Scotland, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria and again to Bosnia and Herzegovina. On Palm Sunday, 4 April, the Cross and Icon started on their pilgrimage around the dioceses of Germany by entering through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. This event was witnessed on giant screens by those present in Saint Peter’s Square for the Rome diocesan celebration of the 19th World Youth Day. Pope John Paul II spoke of the Cross in his homily. He reminded young people that twenty years had passed since he entrusted the Holy Year Cross to the youth of the world. He said, “From that time the Cross continues to travel to many countries in preparation for World Youth Days. During its pilgrimages it has crossed continents. As a torch is passed from hand to hand, it was transported from country to country; it has become a luminous sign of the trust that animates the young generations of the third millennium. Today it is in Berlin!”
The pilgrimage in Germany continued in 2005. On their way, the Cross and Icon called in to greet WYD organisers from all over the world who were gathered in Bensberg for a WYD Preparatory Meeting. The journey around Germany concluded with a 40-day walk from Dresden to Cologne where the Cross and Icon attended the 20th World Youth Day. They were present when young people from all over the world met Pope Benedict XVI. After the celebrations, the Cross returned to Rome for badly needed repairs.
On Palm Sunday 2006, a delegation of German youth handed over the Cross and Icon to a delegation of young Australians. In his homily, Pope Benedict spoke of the cross as a sign of peace. He said, “The new weapon that Jesus places in our hands is the Cross – a sign of reconciliation, of forgiveness, a sign of love that is stronger than death. Every time we make the Sign of the Cross we should remember not to confront injustice with other injustice or violence with other violence. Let us remember that we can only overcome evil with good and never by paying evil back with evil ... From Cologne to Sydney – a journey across continents and cultures, a journey through a world torn and tormented by violence! ... I thank the young people who will now carry this Cross, in which we can as it were touch the mystery of Jesus on the highways of the world. Let us pray that at the same time, it will touch us and open our hearts, so that by following his Cross we will become messengers of his love and his peace. Amen”. After the Palm Sunday celebrations, the Cross and Icon commenced their long journey to Australia by first travelling around Africa. The countries visited in 2006 were Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. Obstacles of all kinds were surmounted so that as many young Africans as possible could pray in the presence of the Cross and Icon. The initial delay was caused by an air strike in Europe. On another occasion the Cross was too big to fit into any plane available and creative alternatives had to be found.
The African tour continued in 2007. The countries visited in the early part of the year were: Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique and Madagascar. Many stories can be told about the journey of the Cross and Icon as they travelled on the back of a truck along the dusty roads of Africa. Crowds came out to welcome them with song and dance, and this attracted many others from other churches and religions. Meetings with the Cross and Icon were used to commission young people to become a “non-violent generation”. They led several peace marches. In countries that have undergone ethnic strife and genocide, the call for “never again” was loud and clear as they gathered together around the Cross and Icon. After this action-packed tour in Africa, the long journey to Australia continued with a short visit to Asia and then on to Oceania. The countries visited were Korea, the Philippines, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Chuuk, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Kiribati, Appia Samoa, American Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and New Zealand. For countries that are so far from each other and from the rest of the world, the main impression expressed by the young people there was that the Cross and Icon brought them closer to the outside world. These WYD symbols had been touched by countless other people all over the globe. They were often greeted by crowds of young people in traditional dress throwing flowers. They travelled in boats through jungles and were carried in procession around islands. They helped bring reconciliation where there were tensions (Timor Leste), and they comforted young people who had recently experienced a severe earthquake and tsunami (Solomon Islands). In July the Cross and Icon reached Australia and commenced their pilgrimage around the next WYD host country. The young people on the JCI (Journey of the Cross and Icon) team kept a diary that recorded the details of the pilgrimage, beginning with the arrival in Sydney and the handover ceremony by New Zealanders in which young Maoris and Australian Aboriginal youth performed their respective ceremonial rituals. The account of the journey speaks of sea and desert, heat and cold, conversions and emotions, isolated communities and warm welcomes.
The pilgrimage in Australia continued in 2008 and concluded with a 15-day walk around the archdiocese of Sydney that led up to the 23rd World Youth Day with Pope Benedict XVI and youth from all over the world. The Cross took part in the Way of the Cross which was enacted in the Sydney streets and harbour. The Pope referred to the WYD symbols in his address during the Vigil on Saturday night. He said, “Gathered before our much-travelled Cross and the icon of Mary, and under the magnificent constellation of the Southern Cross, we pray. Tonight, I am praying for you and for young people throughout the world”. He asked the young people a question, “What is our response, as Christian witnesses, to a divided and fragmented world? How can we offer the hope of peace, healing and harmony to those ‘stations’ of conflict, suffering, and tension through which you have chosen to march with this World Youth Day Cross?” After World Youth Day, the Cross and Icon were flown directly to Rome. After a visit to Lourdes in France, they returned to Rome for repairs.
Palm Sunday 2009 was the occasion for the next handover of the Cross and Icon. Pope Benedict said, “Dear friends, at the end of this liturgy, the young people of Australia will hand over the World Youth Day Cross to their counterparts from Spain. The Cross is on a journey from one side of the world to the other, from sea to sea. And we are accompanying it. With the Cross, we move forward along its path and thus we find our own path...”. On the following day, the young people from Spain who had come for the handover were received in audience by Pope Benedict. The Pope spoke to them about the meaning of the Cross, and he said: “The encounter with the World Youth Day Cross, which is touched and carried, becomes an interior encounter with the One who died for us on the Cross. The encounter with the Cross awakens within young people the remembrance of the God who chose to become man and to suffer with us. I am glad to know that you will carry this cross that you have received in procession on Good Friday through the streets of Madrid so that it may be acclaimed and venerated.” The Cross and Icon were taken to Spain and were given a huge welcome in Madrid cathedral. Then, before continuing the pilgrimage in Spain, the Cross was taken to Italy and Poland for celebrations to mark 25 years since John Paul II entrusted the Holy Year Cross to young people. It also visited the city of Aquila in Italy where there had been a devastating earthquake. Then the Cross and Icon resumed the pilgrimage in Spain, starting with the archdiocese of Madrid.
The Cross and Icon spent the year 2010 touring Spain and its islands, including the Canaries. They also made short visits to Lourdes and Fatima. Great care was made to organise ceremonies and liturgies everywhere they went.
The pilgrimage continued around Spain in 2011 until it was time for the 26th World Youth Day in Madrid. The Cross and Icon were present at many events, including the Way of the Cross through the streets of Madrid. After the concluding Mass, the handover of the symbols took place, and they were transferred from the custody of the Spanish youth to that of the young people of Brazil. Benedict XVI said to them, “Dear friends, before we say good-bye, and while the young people of Spain pass on the World Youth Day cross to the young people of Brazil, as Successor of Peter I entrust all of you present with this task: make the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ known to the whole world! He wants you to be the apostles of the twenty-first century and the messengers of his joy. Do not let him down!” In September of that year, the Cross and Icon started out on their travels around Brazil. The youth of Sao Paolo gave them a tumultuous welcome and send-off on a pilgrimage and process known as “Bote Fé”.
The Brazil tour continued in 2012. It crossed the borders once in order to visit two Marian shrines in Uruguay. As Brazil is such a large country with many dioceses, the Cross and Icon could stay for only two or three days in each diocese. Those days were packed with celebrations, ceremonies, visits to schools, institutions, the sick, the imprisoned, those recovering from dependencies and many others who were comforted by touching the Cross.
In 2013 the “Bote Fé” continued the tour of Brazil and arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the 28th World Youth Day. Pope Francis spoke of the WYD Cross in his address at the Way of the Cross at Copacabana. He reminded the young people that the Cross had been given to them by John Paul II in 1984. Then he said to them, “Since then, the World Youth Day Cross has travelled to every continent and through a variety of human situations. It is, as it were, almost ‘steeped’ in the life experiences of the countless young people who have seen it and carried it. Dear brothers and sisters, no one can approach and touch the Cross of Jesus without leaving something of himself or herself there, and without bringing something of the Cross of Jesus into his or her own life. I have three questions that I hope will echo in your hearts this evening as you walk beside Jesus: What have you left on the Cross, dear young people of Brazil, during these two years that it has been crisscrossing your great country? What has the Cross of Jesus left for you, in each one of you? Finally, what does this Cross teach us?”
It is worth noting here that the increasing use of social media meant that photographs and videos of the Journey of the Cross and Icon were being shared online by young people as well as by bishops’ conferences, dioceses, parishes and websites. As the younger generations are very eager to share their experiences online, this ongoing pilgrimage can now be followed by anyone anywhere in the world.
The Cross and Icon were in Rome again in 2014 for Palm Sunday, and they were handed over by young people from Brazil to young people from Poland. Then they were taken to celebrate Easter in Poznan. In June the pilgrimage went beyond the borders to reach out to other countries in eastern and central Europe. The rest of the year was given to visiting Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Cross and Icon travelled vast distances that year carrying with them a message of peace. That message was particularly felt in Ukraine where the young peoples’ prayer was a cry for peace and a sign of solidarity with their peers in the eastern part of the country.
The Cross and Icon travelled throughout Poland in 2015 and 2016 until World Youth Day in Krakow in July. Again the Cross played a prominent role in the WYD Way of the Cross. While this devotion was being prayed and depicted in a very creative and moving way, the Cross was carried through Blonia Park by different groups of young people representing the universality of the Church and the suffering that persists in the world today.
The Cross and Icon returned to Rome after WYD and were present at some gatherings in the Paul VI Hall, including a papal audience with earthquake victims from central Italy. Then on Palm Sunday 2017 in Saint Peter’s Square, young people from Poland handed them over to a delegation of young people from Panama. The Cross and Icon set out once again on their mission as precursors of WYD. Again they crossed the Atlantic, this time to undertake a pilgrimage around Central America and neighbouring countries.
Great distances are being covered, and more and more young people are being touched by the WYD Cross and Icon. The pilgrimage continues, passing from hand to hand, country to country and generation to generation...