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Youth on a pilgrimage

For Lucas Smolic, this week's trip to Rome is a genuine pilgrimage.

"I hope to rediscover my religion. I want to find myself and really understand what it is I believe in," the teenager from Kingston, Mass., says with great intensity.

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"Times are tough right now trying to stay a religious person."

Like many young people, he found church boring and "not uplifting," but that changed when his church started a "teen mass." "The teen mass basically has jump-started my religion," he says in an interview.

Now he wants to go deeper.

Mr. Smolic joined an eager throng of 850 young Roman Catholics and church leaders who flew from Boston to Rome on Monday to share a "jubilee pilgrimage" with more than a million young people from around the world. Some 17,000 youths were expected from the US, with Boston's contingent said to be the largest. World Youth Days, which began Tuesday and run through a 24-hour vigil this weekend, are, in the words of Pope John Paul II, "the heart of the Great Jubilee."

Jubilee Year 2000, announced by the pope in 1994, combines a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ with a celebration of the jubilee of the Old Testament, a time set aside every 50 years for taking stock, setting things right, and making a fresh start in life.

For a pontiff in what he calls his "twilight years," who sees a materialistic global culture threatening to overwhelm Christian values, the jubilee is a means to renew his church, revitalize the faithful, and prepare fresh troops for the third millennium.

"For the holy father, his whole pontificate has been focused on celebrating this year," says Paul Henderson, executive director for Jubilee 2000 at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. "In a historical perspective, the pope reads so much of his own term in office in the life of the church as preparing to enter the new millennium."

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John Paul II has taken the lead, apologizing and seeking forgiveness for the sins of Roman Catholics through history, including the Inquisition and the Crusades, and acknowledging, to a degree, failures to act during the Holocaust. He has reached out - though not always successfully - toward reconciliation with Eastern Orthodoxy, and with Jews and Muslims during trips to the Holy Land. He has encouraged Catholic church leaders and laity to undertake the same kind of introspection and action in their own homes and communities.

Viewing young Catholics as "apostles of the new millennium," the pope has held World Youth Days on several trips in recent years, from Buenos Aires to Denver to Manila to Paris. Turnouts are impressive, but many youths seemed keener to see the pope than to stick close to church traditions.

Smolic says, "I want to praise God, but I want to praise Him in my own way. I don't want some person born in the 16th century telling me how to praise God." That's why the teen mass filled with Christian rock music has meant so much to him. He's seen the mass totally change some friends, including one who went from "a kid that was dissing religion" to one that was gung-ho.

Yet Smolic is still searching, because he doesn't want to just do what his faith calls for, but to understand it. He hopes that "in Rome I'm going to learn a lot."

The pope invited youths to view this week as a pilgrimage, "a spiritual journey toward life in Christ." They are spending time visiting the church's holiest sites and in learning sessions, as well as sharing their own cultural expressions of worship in music and theater. They attended mass with the pope in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday, and on Saturday, they will gather for a vigil on the city's outskirts. It begins with a day of music and witness, then an evening message from the pontiff, an overnight stay, and mass on Sunday morning.

Julie Klein, a young woman from Nebraska, arrived in Rome a week early, and on Monday explored St. Peter's Square, where pillars around the piazza were festooned with flags from around the world. This is "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she says. "We'll never be in such a big group ever, and we're all here because God wanted us to be here for one reason or another."

Youths from the Archdiocese of Boston are keeping families and friends at home informed by sharing their experiences each evening on a Web site.

But jubilee began long before the Rome trip for young people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire dioceses. Catholics from 13 to 39 were invited to join in Pilgrimage 2000 from the fall of 1999 through April 2000. They gathered regularly in small groups to study the faith and share questions and concerns.

David Beaudry, then a senior at Boston University (now in Atlanta with CNN), found that "Jubilee Year happened at the right time for me." He was already in a period of self-examination and still is, he says, and involvement with a small group "pushed me to further examine my spirituality and role in the church." Also, "it gave me a more youthful taste of the church," he says, "and I made some really good friends."

Mr. Beaudry has been distressed by the closing down of his home parish, and he's trying to sort out other concerns, such as the exclusivity of the faith. "I believe in the Catholic Church and its core beliefs and ideals," he says. "But we're not the only ones on a faith journey, and it's not necessarily that we are right and others are wrong - we are just different.... The church has its problems, but it's a great place to be," he concludes.

A 30-something mother of seven children, Jaymie Stuart Wolfe was initially a bit skeptical about Jubilee, she says, but there's been "a tremendous sense of newness and grace" in her life. Materials covered in the smallgroup discussions weren't new to her, she adds, but hearing others share their different experiences of God was "very exciting."

"Sometimes we want a new beginning so desperately, but... with introspection [we] never quite get out of ourselves," she continues. "This has been introspection with an outward look.... That's been a tremendous gift only something like this can provide."

The attraction of Pilgrimage 2000 is that "people got to journey together," says James Breen, of the Office for Young Adults in the Boston Archdiocese. His hope is that it "sparks a rejuvenation in the lives of young people" so they associate themselves with a parish community.

In April, a "festival of faith" was held in Boston's Fenway Park as the culminating event in Pilgrimage 2000, and more than 20,000 young people showed up.

Jubilee isn't just for the younger generations, though. And Catholic parishes across the US have created a variety of expressions for the themes of reconciliation, evangelization, and celebration.

In Phoenix, for example, an ecumenical festival of faith co-led by Catholic and Lutheran bishops drew 35,000. Also, a special play was commissioned on the subject of reconciliation between cultures, says Father Dale Fushek, diocesan vicar general.

One major focus in Philadelphia was reaching out to those who have been away from the church with a "reconciliation weekend." Five months ahead, the archdiocese set up a toll-free phone line for those who might want to "iron out any wrinkles" before the weekend, advertising on radio, TV, billboards, and subways with the slogan: "If you think you can't make it right, you're wrong."

Swamped with more than 32,000 calls, they've kept the phone line going indefinitely. More than 100,000 showed up at reconciliation weekend, and an estimated 35 percent were people who had been away from church for at least five years, says John Tague, of the archdiocese evangelization and renewal office.

"What I've discovered going around the country," Mr. Henderson says, "is that the power of jubilee year is not so much in church activities as in personal conversion - people reflecting on how their lives are a mirror of the gospel, and then making changes." Lucas Smolic aims for changes in himself and in his church. At a youth gathering in Ohio earlier this year, he found many who shared his views. Once he gets a better grasp on Catholicism, he says, he wants to work with them to "start a whole new era of the church."

*Richard Wentworth contrib-uted to this story from Rome.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society