On the feast day of Saint John Paul II – the founder of World Youth Day – youth, young adults, and World Youth Day alumni gathered together to honor him at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington. The Oct. 22 gathering was the first event of World Youth Day Unite, which will be a series of events inviting youth and young adults to join World Youth Day alumni in celebrating their faith.

Paul Jarzembowski, the master of ceremonies for the day, opened the event by acknowledging the windy weather, saying, “The Spirit is among us, blowing through everything.”

He welcomed everyone to the shrine, and said regardless of whether or not everyone there had attended a World Youth Day, that day they were all united as pilgrims to the shrine.

Sister Giovanna Mariae, a Sister of Life, offered a few thoughts about Saint John Paul II before leading the group in an opening prayer. As she stood outside of the shrine, she recalled that the day of Saint John Paul II’s funeral was also very windy, and suggested, “I think this is his special way of saying he is here with us today.”

If he were there in person, she said, “He would encourage us to remember who we are by looking to Christ…He would remind us we were created by love and for love…that the world is thirsting for the love that your life brings.”

Following the opening prayer, Father Dave Dwyer, the host of Busted Halo radio show, gave a talk about his own call to the priesthood that he discovered while he was sitting in a field at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver.

“I had for the first time in my life the sense of a call to the priesthood,” said Father Dwyer. “I thought it was stuff that other people did…I thought maybe God didn’t have good aim and meant the person next to me.”

His initial reaction was that he didn’t think he was the “priestly type,” because he laughed too much and was too loud to be a priest, but he said the Lord responded to him saying, “I know who you are. I created you. I need you, just who you are.”

Father Dwyer said a lot of people ask him how he knew his vocation, so he gave a few tips on how to discern God’s will. He said someone can know a call is real if it gives them “every increase in hope, faith and charity,” causing them to be “more hopeful, more charitable, and have deeper faith.”

Emphasizing that following God’s call doesn’t necessarily mean entering religious life or changing one’s career entirely, Father Dwyer said, “we know there are many of you out there that God needs in your walk of life…to reach people who we cannot.”

Father Dwyer said World Youth Day Unite was “a great opportunity to have the same excitement (as World Youth Day) and encourage people to give their lives to the Church.” He added that it is “great not to wait three years or travel around the world...we can do it in our own backyard.”

The rest of the day included several more talks, a dramatic reading of a homily that Saint John Paul II gave at the 2000 World Youth Day in Rome, and an unveiling of a new statue by artist Chas Fagan.

“I think it’s been great in the years since he has been canonized the effect Saint John Paul II has continued to have on young adults,” Father Dwyer said.

Throughout the day participants had the opportunity to attend Adoration and Confession, and the event concluded with a Mass for St. John Paul II’s Feast Day, celebrated by Msgr. Brian Bransfield, the general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Music was provided by the group Out of Darkness.

Sarah Jarzembowski, who has been to five world youth days, said the day was a good reminder that “faith is bigger than our parish, our archdiocese, or our country. It is bigger than the problems that I have.”

She was particularly happy to be at the Shrine of Saint John Paul II on his feast day.

“Saint John Paul II is why I’m in pastoral ministry, why my marriage is so strong,” she said. “He is the catalyst for a lot of things in my life.”

Liz Schillo, a youth minister who travelled to the event from the Diocese of Wilmington, said the day served as a way to reenergize her faith and remind her of the beauty of the universal Church, which she came to appreciate while living all around the world growing up.

“Everywhere you go, somewhere the Mass is being said and the Eucharist is present,” she said. 

Schillo used to live in Southwest Georgia, where there was only one Catholic church for about 40 miles, and they were unable to have big diocesan events like World Youth Day Unite, she said.

“Especially as a young adult, it is so important to get involved and realize there are other Catholics my age,” said Schillo.

Anne Marie Warner, who has attended three different World Youth Days, said she was looking forward to the opportunity “to re-live the graces (from World Youth Day), to remember them, to pray with them again, and to hear other people share what they learned.”

The Saint John Paul II National Shrine is planning to host three more World Youth Day Unite events in 2017. The first will be on Jan. 28, the day after the March for Life, the second will be on April 8, the day before Palm Sunday, and the third will be the weekend of July 21-23 for a World Youth Day Summer Reunion.