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Rome Notes: Birthplace of World Youth Days; Background Work

8/19/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Centro San Lorenzo, Something Old and New

By Catherine Smibert

ROME, AUG. 19, 2005 (Zenit) - Everything has a moment of conception -- a place and a time when it all began. This is valid for the World Youth Days too, and Rome was where it began.

Specifically, it was the Centro San Lorenzo/International Youth Center and was one of Pope John Paul II's first big steps at renewing the faith of the young.

As his pontificate started, he was concerned about the dwindling numbers of young people active in the Church.

That's when he went on a search to give youth a place -- it could become the Vatican Youth Center -- and he managed to find one practically in front of St. Peter's Square.

It was the old Church of St. Lawrence "in Piscibus" (at the Fish Market) that had been forgotten due to the modern palazzi blocks which had been built around it.

With fourth-century foundations, the stunning church we see today was reconstructed in the 12th century following the Crusades. Its alternating interior columns still have little crosses carved into them as symbols of the "conquest over paganism."

The church had gone through a lot of hardships by the time John Paul II came upon it -- from being de-consecrated and turned into an artists studio, to becoming a home to Rome's fish markets at one time.

Yet, the Pope saw potential in this lovely building that had almost been left to ruin, just as he saw potential in the youth of the day. He reconsecrated it in a special youth Mass in March 1983.

During this Mass -- photos of which still hang on the walls of the church -- John Paul II expressed his desire that the church, its basement and courtyard become "a hothouse of faith-filled evangelization " a breeding ground for mission."

During this time there was a rise in the newer communities, many of them based on the Charismatic Renewal. They were attracted to the Pope's enthusiasm and decided to respond to his invitation by pooling their resources.

Ever since then, the Centro, as its affectionately known, has offered the youth of the world a place to come and ask questions when visiting the Eternal City. They then have an opportunity to partake in daily sacraments -- reconciliation, Mass, etc. -- in a variety of languages, and a holy hour at 5 p.m. every weekday.

Over the years many youth have also taken the chance to kneel at the foot of the original cross, given to young people by the Pope in 1984, which stays here when not traveling around the world.

The center, overseen by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, welcomes pilgrimage groups. More information is available via phone (39-06-698-85332) or fax (39-06-698-85095).

* * *

Behind the Scenes

The Vatican works for each World Youth Day behind the scenes, via the Youth Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Some of its roles include the publishing of multilingual booklets for the occasion, multimedia promotion kits, and reflection points for diocesan preparation.

Elizabeth Hawkins is an officer at this Youth Section. She spoke with me about how the office also assists in the coordination of the World Youth Days.

"We organize the WYD around preparatory meetings, for each year, but the work is on a more grand scale when it comes to the international ones," she said.

Hawkins emphasized how much the staff cares about learning the intricate needs of each country involved and how important it is to learn from the past.

"In the case of Cologne, the first meeting was held directly after [World Youth Day in] Toronto, to get some feedback on how things went here," she recalled.

"In fact, we sent out questionnaires to discover what people thought; what went right or wrong, what they wanted, etc., and this was presented and discussed at that meeting," Hawkins explained. "Another meeting took place last January in Cologne itself to specifically hear the input and expectations of the WYD representatives from across the world."

Hawkins noted that it is especially important to highlight the beauty that each host country offers, and equally be concerned about what the event is bringing to the nation.

"In this case, it's the Pope's nationality too," she said. "I think it will be very good for the Church in Germany. The young people are so thrilled to invite one of their own! And I think it's going to be a very nice bridge."

She added: "This is a period of transition in history where papal legacies are being passed on to the next Pope. WYD is among them."

* * *

Where Youth Day Is Every Day

Each World Youth Day challenges young people to be the principal actors in the new evangelization. And there's a school in Rome that offers them the chance to live up to the ...

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