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Benedict XVI’s love for World Youth Day demonstrated as he lay in state

People pay their respects at the body of Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

ROME (OSV News) — In St. Peter’s Basilica this week, tens of thousands of visitors have been able to see him dressed in striking red posthumous vestments — the same as he wore in Sydney at World Youth Day in 2008. On Jan. 5, he will be buried in them.

“Pope Benedict XVI remarked to me on many occasions how much he loved his visit to Sydney to celebrate World Youth Day in 2008,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P. of Sydney wrote on his Facebook profile. “What a wonderful tribute.”

Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney at the time of World Youth Day in Australia, told OSV News that he had been “delighted and honored” to host Pope Benedict in Sydney.

“We had some beautiful memories there. One of the most lovely photographs is of him, and I happened to be beside him, on the row of the boat coming up Sydney Harbor on a perfect day for the opening Mass,” Cardinal Pell recalled. “It was beautiful.”

World Youth Day, a meeting of youth from around the globe with the pope begun by Pope St. John Paul II, is organized every two to three years in a different corner of the world. When John Paul II died in April 2005, preparations for the summer World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, were already underway, and Pope Benedict was enthusiastic to continue the legacy of his predecessor.

“With that decision, Benedict XVI made the Polish pope’s ‘invention’ as part of the ordinary life of the Catholic Church forever,” Yago de la Cierva, executive director of World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011, told OSV News.

World Youth Day in Madrid was the third and final of the events that Pope Benedict attended before his 2013 resignation.

De la Cierva recalled how Benedict instantly mesmerized the young people who had been waiting for him in the Spanish capital. When he was driving from the airport to the Vatican embassy through the streets of the city, the affection was visible — and loud.

“I could see from the car of the entourage how people looked at the pope with such overflowing affection that even the civil authorities’ officials that accompanied me were moved to tears,” de la Cierva recalls.

But what really will go down in history of the Madrid event is the Saturday vigil. Aug. 20, 2011, was the hottest day of the summer in Spain, with a temperature reaching 102 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, the hot day transitioned to a brutal storm, with torrential rain and driving winds. Lightning struck the light towers, and make-shift chapels set up at the Cuatro Vientos airport collapsed.

At the scene, the choir deserted the stage, thinking it was on the verge of collapse. Assistants were covering Pope Benedict with three umbrellas. But the pope refused to leave the stage. “He was standing there and repeating, ‘If the young people are here, how can I leave them?” de la Cierva told OSV News.

The fact that his love for World Youth Day was highlighted by Benedict XVI even upon his death is something very special for World Youth Day organizers.

“I saw this love in person, and it comes as no surprise to me, but I must admit it’s such an incredibly touching moment and legacy to be remembered forever for the organizers of World Youth Day,” de la Cierva said.

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News.

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