Imagine receiving a mail from the Vatican with the news that you have been chosen to visit another country to meet the most influential religious leader in the world? Jenukshan Colombas from Vavuniya thought it was all a prank. “I actually thought it was a spam mail,” he says with a laugh, but the invitation which followed was even more staggering – to have lunch with Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. It was an experience of a lifetime. “ I met the Pope! I still can’t believe it,” says Jenukshan.
More than 80,000 volunteers, over 7800 priests, bishops and millions of youth were gathered together at the World Youth Day (WYD) celebrations held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from July 23 till 28. Its motto was “Go and make disciples of all nations”, a verse from the Bible (Matthew 28:19). Youth from the ages of 16 to 35 from different parts of the world were invited to participate in this event. Of them all Jenukshan was chosen to represent Asia at a special lunch with the Pontiff.
Twenty-year-old Jenukshan, an ardent cricket fan lives in Vavuniya with his parents and his sister. He studied at the Vavuniya Tamil Madya Maha Vidyalaya and is currently boarded at Bambalapitiya following a course of studies at the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT). At present he is not a member of any Youth Association, but not he is determine to give his time to be a Youth member and bear witness to God’s love as a youth.
Jenukshan applied to take part in the World Youth Day quite by chance. He had come across Madrid World Youth Day 2011 while browsing the net for news of the Vatican. “I thought of applying for this year’s event mainly because it was going to be held in Rio de Janeiro. I wanted to see the country and meet the people. I was interested in seeing the bishops and thought if I was lucky, I could see the Pope. Never did I imagine that I would be chosen to have lunch with him,” he says.
World Youth Day, started in 1985 is an international event organized by the Vatican to bring together thousands of youth as ‘ambassadors of faith’. Held annually in Catholic dioceses of the world, every 2 or 3 years, there is an international meeting of young people with the Pope, which lasts about a week.
The entire event, including the prayer vigil at the Copacabana Beach on Saturday July 27, drew a staggering 3.5 million people. But Sunday’s closing Mass was by far the largest event, with 3.7 million participants. Pilgrims came from 175 countries, and 60 percent of them were between the ages of 19 to 35.
“I signed up as a volunteer and went to Rio on July 15. We had to follow a training programme. The biggest challenge was the language barrier. There were people from almost every country and I was the only Sri Lankan.
“I did everything alone like getting my passport and visa, even booking my tickets. It was truly God’s grace that gave me courage to do everything alone in Colombo which is not my home town and also in Rio. My parents were very happy for me. I couldn’t talk to my family while I was there because of the time difference and also because the crowd was so great there was always network traffic,” Jenukshan said.
Communication may have been difficult but music brought them all together, he says. “The thing I liked the most was the musical events. Although some didn’t understand the language; music brought everyone together in praise and worship. We could truly feel the spirit of God. There were dramas and masses to keep the crowd together,” said Jenukshan. The lunch with the Pontiff of course, was what made Jenukshan a very lucky young man, the youngest in the group. Two people represented each continent and there were 12 people altogether for the lunch. “They sent me a mail and had to call me again because I didn’t believe it. They let me know on the third day of my visit. It was an unbelievable experience,” Jenukshan says, still awed by it all.
“The Holy Father came and blessed the table and we said grace. He wanted us to introduce ourselves and throughout the meal he spoke to us as one of his own. He was always so full of energy, always smiling, talking to everyone. We felt happy just being in his presence.”
Jenukshan says he can’t remember what they had for lunch that day, he was too nervous and excited.“We asked him questions and invited him to visit our countries. Almost all the topics were faith related. He told us to be an example to our peers, help directionless youth to find a path. He said that we have to help others at all costs spiritually empowering them. He said we must all consider ourselves as one community.”
When the representative from New Zealand asked Pope Francis how youth can be good Christians in today’s society with their own cultures and traditions, he had said that Christ is the present.
He asked the youth to live in the present because Christ is not in traditions but also that we should not, in the meantime lose our focus; the aim of every Christian being to enter heaven. “I will meet all of you again at a bigger feast,” he had said at the end.
The Pope gave them each a medallion, a Rosary and a box of ‘Vatican cookies’ as gift. “This for me is proof that I didn’t dream the whole thing. These have now become my most treasured possessions,” Jenukshan says.
“It was a wonderful experience that I will cherish all my life. It made me increase my faith, my confidence and gave me a new meaning to life. I feel as if it was God’s way of asking me to do my part for the church and my faith,” he says.
Jenukshan’s message for youngsters is one he has received at the WYD. “The Pope said the downfall of youth is giving up. When we face problems, we exclude ourselves from society and the people we love and this makes us feel forlorn and vulnerable. We have to be close to those who love us during challenging times, and increase our spirituality. Hard times are the best opportunity to work at our faith.”