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The World Youth Days are accompanied by two symbols – a Holy Year Cross and an Icon of Our Lady Protectress of the Roman People (Salus Populi Romani). During World Youth Days celebrations these symbols are present on the site of Main Events. In preparation for the Days, the symbols make a pilgrimage in the country which organizes the meeting. For the next generation of young people, these Symbols indicate the true „purpose” of the World Youth Days: getting to know Jesus deeper and deeper in the Mystery of Redemption and abandonment of their lives to the protection of Our Lady.
“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”
St. John Paul II, Rome, 22nd April 1984
The wooden cross, which nowadays is called „The World Youth Day Cross”, was made in 1983 to celebrate the beginning of the Holy Year of Jubilee of the Redemption (25.03.1983 – 22.04.1984). During the opening celebration of the Holy Year, young people brought this cross to St. Peter’s Basilica, where it remained for the duration of the Jubilee. Set beside the Tomb of St. Peter, it accompanied the following celebrations and groups of pilgrims, who came to the Vatican. Also among them were young people who were representatives of movements and communities which collectively responded to the invitation made by the Holy Father.
The youth asked the Pope to give them the cross after the end of the Holy Year celebrations, and the Holy Father granted their wish. On Easter Sunday he gave them the Holy Year Cross with the words:
„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.”
This event was not only the beginning of the journey of the cross throughout the world, but it was also the herald of World Youth Days. The cross is a meeting, a moment when young people first personally experience the Mystery of Redemption and later bring it to the world, to their peers, families and fellow citizens. That’s why the first World Youth Days (and to this day youth days in dioceses) were held on Palm Sunday – right before Easter.
At first the young took the cross to their place (the San Lorenzo Centre), a youth centre founded by St. John Paul II in Vatican. There the cross lives permanently and from there it is carried by young people as it embarks on further journeys. First it went to Germany for Catholic Days (1984), and later to other European countries. In 1987 in Buenos Aires the second World Youth Days (and the first outside of Italy) took place, and for the first time the cross was taken outside Europe. It was the beginning of the cross pilgrimage around the world.
Up to this day, the cross was present on all continents, including countries which face wars and conflicts. Young people brought it to both shrines and places of religious events, as well as anywhere where prevailing testimony of faith is needed. Beside this cross prayers were held onsite of the attacks of the World Trade Centre in New York, and in the country of Rwanda which is struggling with the consequences of the bloody civil war. The cross visited not only the seat of the UN, but also little schools, hospitals and prisons.
Since 14.04.2014 the cross and the icon of Our Lady have been making a pilgrimage in Polish dioceses, to prepare Poland for the World Youth Days.
The Icon of the Mother of God Salus Populi Romani
The painting of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani is one of the most venerated images of Mary in Italy. The title «Protectress of the Roman People» dates back to the events at the end of the 6th century, when the inhabitants of Rome suffered from the epidemic of the Bubonic Plague. In the year 590, Pope Gregory the Great carried the image of Mary in a suppliant procession; asking her to save the city. Then he saw an angel in the sky, sheathing his punitive sword. Shortly after this the plague ceased.
Today, renowned for its graces, the icon of the Mother of God is located in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. This is a place Romans visit on pilgrimage with many intentions to pray for. Starting and completing apostolic journeys at “Saint Mary Major” is also a custom of Pope Francis.
For the first time Our Lady in this image appeared at World Youth Day in the year 2000, when a copy of the icon was placed on the Papal altar at Tor Vergata.
Three years later, during the Day in Dioceses, Saint John Paul II urged the young to approach, through Mary, closer to Jesus. In his message for the World Youth Day 2003 he explained: “Mary was given to you to help you enter into a more authentic and more personal relationship with Jesus. Through her example, Mary teaches you to gaze on him with love, for He has loved us first.” It was during this meeting that the Pope gave the youth the copy of the icon, to travel around the world together with the cross. Thus, he passed on to the youth his testament: the phrase «Totus Tuus», which is learned by successive generations of young people today at the foot of the Mother of God «of World Youth Day».
«Know, however, that in difficult times, which everyone experiences, you are not alone: like John at the foot of the Cross, Jesus also gives His Mother to you so that She will comfort you with Her tenderness.»
St. John Paul II – the message for World Youth Day 2003
These two symbols: the cross and the icon of Mother of God travel a long distance every year, so that young people may encounter Jesus Christ in them and always be prepared to give a defense to anyone who calls them to account for the hope that is in them.