World Youth Day is accompanied and represented by two symbols: the pilgrim cross and the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani. In the months leading up to each WYD, the symbols set out on a pilgrimage to proclaim the Gospel and to accompany young people and their realities in a particularly special manner.
The way these symbols have been received and welcomed has borne considerable fruit all over the world. In Africa, they instigated young people to become a non-violent generation, were displayed at the forefront of several peace marches, and were touched and greeted by thousands of worshippers wearing the typical attire of their countries. They have also helped to bring about reconciliation in places of tension, such as East Timor.
The World Youth Day pilgrim cross
The 3.8 metre high pilgrim cross, built for the Holy Year in 1983, was entrusted to the young people on Palm Sunday of the following year by John Paul II, to be carried around the world. Since then, the pilgrimage of the wooden pilgrim cross has already taken it to five continents and almost 90 countries. It has been seen as a true sign of faith.
It has been carried on foot, by boat and even by unusual means such as sledges, cranes and tractors. It has been through the jungle, visited churches, juvenile detention centres, prisons, schools, universities, hospitals, monuments and shopping centres. It has also encountered many obstacles on its journey: from air strikes to transport difficulties, such as being unable to travel since it would not fit into any of the available planes.
It has asserted itself as a sign of hope in particularly sensitive locations. In 1985, it was in Prague, the current Czech Republic, at the time when Europe was divided by the iron curtain, and represented communion with the Pope. Shortly after 9/11, it travelled to Ground Zero in New York, where the terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 people had taken place. It also went to Rwanda in 2006, after the country had been plagued by civil war. The World Youth Day Cross was in Dublin in 2005 for two weeks.
Since 2000, the pilgrim cross has been accompanied by the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani, who portrays the Virgin Mary with the Child in her arms. This icon was also introduced by Pope John Paul II as a symbol of Mary’s presence among young people. Standing 1.20 metres high and 80 centimetres wide, the icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani is associated with one of the most popular Marian devotions in Italy. Continuing an old tradition, it is carried in a procession through the streets of Rome, to ward off dangers and misfortunes or to put an end to plagues. The original icon is housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maior, in Rome, and is visited by Pope Francis who goes there to pray and to leave a bouquet of flowers prior to and upon return from each apostolic journey.