Father spoke in 12 different languages that day in Paris. I stood among the millions with our native countries flags’ waving in the air like wind brushing afternoon grass. As He spoke in every groups native language they would cheer at the chance to hear his message. Us Americans were among the smallest group attending that year and were the last to hear him.
What made the memory so odd was that I couldn’t really hear what he was saying. Among the millions of young people I couldn’t hear a thing. With a borrowed pair of binoculars I could see him frail and tired up upon the altar giving his message. At the time I didn’t know it but each language had a different introduction. To the English speakers he told us that he was happy to see us from the outstretches of the world. We were happy to see him.
This was simply the introduction to a week of praise. Little did I know at the time that my life would be forever changed from that point on in Paris. I spent my week among the older boys of the youth group. My parents had to make a special request to have a 13 year old go to an event only for 16 plus. By this very situation I was lopped into the older guys group for protection I suppose. With my older peers we were boarded with the people of France.
My first home was something amazing and a true testament to the love of Christ that exists in His followers hearts. A woman took myself and 3 other boys and an adult leader into her home. Home is an over exaggeration of what this place was. The apartment was no more than 500 square feet total from one end to the other. It must have been one of the few buildings to still be standing from the days of war. She gave us our own room and food. It seemed most disgusting that we were taking food from this woman. We quickly realized that she had nothing compared to our cushioned life back home. The language barrier seemed too much for all of us as we left for separate rooms. She uttered some French and led us to the bathroom. The bathroom had no hot water or electricity but it was hers and she was most proud. We once again thanked her in the little French we knew and laid down for bed only slightly filled up on our rations of bread and orange juice. Looking back I never slept so peacefully as that night. I slept on the patio off her one window high above the streets with the cool wind circulating through the maze of the city.
I was awoken to the sound of the Cathedral’s bells ringing loudly as they echoed through the square by which I slept. Our French “Mum” as we called her had already been up and had gathered us toasted bread and milk. At the time I didn’t realize why she made a funny face as I asked for refills of my small milk glass. Later I found out that milk was more than 5 American dollars a gallon.
We took our showers in the dark bathroom. With no windows and no electricity our only guidance was the small candle Mum had placed on the back of the toilet. Showers were a chore and not at all what we were accustom to therefore made them quick. I remember just as I finished and walked out the door I saw the sun gracing the doorway from the square. If there was ever a moment to paint a picture this was it.
Mum led us to the Cathedral I had been woken from just an hour earlier. There we witnessed what Mass was like before Vatican II. What was beautiful about the situation was that as Catholics the Mass is always the same. I didn’t know the language but I knew what was going on and could appreciate the global sense of community I belonged to. As mass let out we made our way to the great doors of the church. There we asked her for a picture and she more than happily accepted. While she was busy with us boys taking pictures, the adult leader ran back to the house and placed a card and food on her door step. A small token for what she did, but something the leader felt necessary. He later commented that we must always trust that the Lord will provide. The lady had trusted in that same statement and for this day it would hold true.
We took a subway to our next home and center of activity on the outskirts of town. We were sent to a huge gymnasium holding area for all of us teens. I remember walking to the door much to the surprise of those running the center. No one expected Americans to be arriving at this place and they had no space for us. The leaders joked that there was no inn for us to stay but knew that things would work out. While we waited for the details to be finalized, a few of us began kicking around a soccer ball with the other teens. They laughed uncontrollably at the idea of Americans playing soccer. None of us spoke French but gathered they were breaking up into teams…of course…my fellow American’s and I were on the same team. We played soccer for hours and beat them more than they did us. As our leaders called for us we shook hands and exchanged hugs. A few of my fellow teens gave them American mementos and were given in return French things. Had I known that there would be gift exchange I may have brought more than the essentials. A teen from Zimbabwe gave me his countries flag commenting in broken English “I love America.” I wondered if he knew most American’s couldn’t tell you where his country was.
An old man began yelling at me in French and saying “American here.” Apparently this man would be our next house to stay in. He led us from the gymnasium to the house he had nestled in between the streets and alleys. His house was much larger than the last and he seemed wealthy comparatively to the rest of his neighborhood. It made me laugh to come to his yard where had his little white house and picket fence. The American dream had found its way to Paris. He took us in and showed us our quarters for the night. He spoke more English than Mum which made things much easier. His wife stuck her head out the kitchen to say hello and return to cooking. If there ever was the stereotypical old lady, she was it. After we all settled in she came up stairs to give us big hugs and kisses on our cheeks. For a moment I forget I was not at Grandma’s house but rather across the pond here. We found a common language as it became apparent the old man spoke German which seemed odd to me. Among the group of 5 I was with, myself and the adult leader spoke also. After dinner we were told to go upstairs and shower for bed. It must have been around 9:00pm or so but there was no arguing. The day had been long. I couldn’t sleep like I did the night before. I had even tried sleeping on his patio in hopes of the same outcome as last, but no luck. I could hear the Adult Leader and the old man speaking for hours. I felt left out and wished I could have sat with them. I picked up just bits and pieces from my perched position a floor above. I was curious to know why the old man spoke German so well.
“Ich war ein Nazi.” I think I almost fell off the patio that night upon hearing those words. The old man spoke great German for a reason. Back in the war after Paris was occupied by Hitler, he was given the choice to go into slave labor for no pay or to join the army. The choice was obvious as he had just been married. I couldn’t internalize the fact that he had fought the American’s and most likely killed a few. I was glad we were not staying there more than the night alloted for us. I couldn’t look at them anymore as Grandma and Grandpa in Paris. All I saw was the Nazi in him. I loved him no less for the outstretched arms he wrapped around us, but in the way I was felt cheated. I never had to approach the subject before and my young 13 year old mind couldn’t grasp it and accept. Instead I just hid from it. I hoped he wouldn’t speak to me about it as I spoke German also. I wish now I could return and apologize for my unfair judgment of him. Now that I am married and providing, I too would have joined the army.
After that night with Grandma and Grandpa we were off to the horse tracks where we would spend our next 2 days in Paris. I never knew what a refugee camp was like before this and hope I never am there again. Up till this point we had been treated as out of towners and guests instead of standard people. We had been given board when others had not. Now we would be woken from our easy sleep. There was more than a few hundred thousand cramped into this stadium that just weeks ago horses had raced. It is very odd that a place where gambling was the standard would now be a place of worship. All the same the conditions here were bad. Bad isn’t an accurate representation of what it was like. Our meals were served out of giant buckets of stew much like you see on old war movies. Slop would be on the menu a lot I would come to find out. Luckily we spent most of the day away from the track going to activities and sight seeing, but those meals will be one thing I remember vividly. The bathrooms were gross enough to make us hold it till the next day’s travels. A few of us joked that the track smelled better with the horses there and it was true. All us teens basking in the August sun with no showers was starting to take its toll. Unfortunately this was the last day. I say unfortunately because no matter how bad things were, there was a time to be had. I had met fellow teens from around the world. I was almost uneasy at how open they were. Many gave me hugs and said “Peace be with you” in English. I gave a few my address and tokens from the many I had received. All in all this experience was turning out to be nothing short of amazing. If there was ever a time to cement your faith it was now. All this could not compare to the night’s activities.
Father had put together a small mass for all of us there in the stadium. I don’t know how it was to be classified as small, but no matter where the Pope went the masses were large. I hate to think what a big mass would be. A few of us were sitting around playing cards laughing and joking when we heard what sounded like hymns. No one had told us mass was starting and we had no clue. We quickly stood up and sung the lyrics in English. Mass had started.
What happened next I don’t believe will ever be accurately conveyed to the Reader. In this cramped stadium among all these people we were singing the same hymn. Although in different languages we were praising together. You would think with all the native tongues running around it would have sounded like a bad showing of American Idol, but rather sounded like angelic music. Somehow we sounded great. As the hymn was ending and John Paul II made his way to his chair. Candles were passed around in enormous cardboard boxes. I had never seen so many candles together in one place but got over my day dreaming and picked one out. Somewhere in the sea of people a candle had been lit and that flame was passed. We stood there candles lit listening to the Word come from fellow teens in their native languages. I wish I could have been up there lecturing, if for nothing else than to see this flame pass along. It must have been a sight because Pope John Paul II made sure to comment on it during his homily. His words in all 8 languages were “The light of Christ passes from one believer to the non much in the same way these candles have. May this further be an example of the life a teen should live. Let your heart be a candle.” In what may have been the longest Mass I have ever been to we received communion and heard from the Pope. During the “Peace be with You” time I literally hugged 25 people. People were just swarming looking for new faces. I will never forget this mass.
I don’t remember the ride back to Bitburg Germany or the trip back to our home. I was in a daze for the next day or two. My Parents were asking a barrage of questions that I really had few answers to give. This will account for the first time I have expressed the trip. I wish that then it could have had the profound effect on me as it does now. As a young stubborn teenager I was touched by the experience but not burned. Looking back now though I can appreciate the overall greatness of it all. I wept the day Pope John Paul II died because I felt like I knew him. I had been so close to him, not but 8 feet away as he passed. I had heard his message. He had spoken in such a way that his message felt tailored for me alone.
It is sometimes unbelievable to know that a man spoke 8 languages fluently. This doesn’t account for the many that he knew enough to get by. As I sit here writing this, I struggle with one alone. My mind cannot truly grasp the extent of the abilities the Lord blessed him with. I hope one day to return to World Youth Day and maybe this time will fully open my heart to accept the burning the Holy Spirit had in store. If I was left with anything from it all, it’s to let my heart be a candle. I hope to one day pass my flame on to you Reader.