A PILGRIM FROM the Albany Diocese gives a gift to one from Egypt at World Youth Day in Poland.
A PILGRIM FROM the Albany Diocese gives a gift to one from Egypt at World Youth Day in Poland.
Although it was a sunny day, gloom, silence and a heavy, somber feeling hung there. The weight of overwhelming evil bore down on us as we walked gravel paths between barbed-wire fences.

A sign asked for respect as we passed a small pond in a wooded area. The sign explained that the ashes from the crematoria were deposited there; it is the final resting place of thousands of men, women and children.

Bishop Scharfenberger noted the stark contrast between the week-long celebration and joy of World Youth Day that we had just experienced and the sobering silence of this place: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In that moment, Pope Francis' message came alive for me.

This summer, I had the privilege of attending World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland, with a group from the Albany Diocese. I had also attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. Both experiences were incredible. Each host city came alive with the love of Christ.

Everywhere we went during World Youth Day, there were happy people praying, singing, dancing and taking pictures that dozens of new friends and strangers couldn't help but photo-bomb. Inside so many churches, Mass or adoration was going on around the clock.

For a week, life did not continue its normal routine when 1.6 million young Catholics descended on Kraków. Think of millions of flash mobs, with millions of people, that go on for a week!

No train, bus, field, church or stadium could escape the excitement and joy of this celebration. Even the locals hung out of their windows, waving and cheering on the crowds and offering refreshments. Language and cultural barriers melted away. I made memories that I will carry with me and cherish for the rest of my life.

Pope Francis' message throughout World Youth Day juxtaposed the "culture of death" with the joy that Christ offers. At Auschwitz, we heard, "Evil happens when good people do nothing." That is exactly what the culture of death celebrates.

Pope Francis addressed it: "I worry when I see young people who seem to have 'thrown in the towel' before the game has even begun, who are defeated even before they begin to play, who walk around glumly as if life has no meaning. Deep down, young people like this are bored...and boring! And they bore others. And this saddens me, as well.

"But it is also hard and troubling to see young people who waste their lives looking for thrills or a feeling of being alive by taking dark paths and in the end having to pay for it....It is disturbing to see young people squandering some of the best years of their lives, wasting their energies running after peddlers of fond illusions, and there are many of them. Where I come from, we call them 'vendors of smoke,' who rob you of what is best in you."

I can't think of a better description of what the secular culture is offering young people today. Too many have been sold apathy by slick "vendors," preying on their passions and emotions to manipulate them into tolerating evil.

Pope Francis reminds us that we have the answer: "To find fulfillment, to gain new strength, there is a way. There is one answer which cannot be sold and cannot be bought. It is not a thing or an object, but a person, and He is alive. His name is Jesus Christ!"

I don't think we experience and appreciate often enough the joy that Christ offers us. Christ offers us unconditional love, infinite joy and limitless mercy. He offers us the thrill and exhilaration of living life with a purpose, living for others and serving more than the self.

Pope Francis offered a choice: "Are you looking for empty thrills in life, or do you want to feel a power that can give you a lasting sense of life and fulfillment?"

The choice we make leads to eith­er despair -- Auschwitz -- or Christ.

(Mr. Houle, a native of St. Mary's parish in Albany, is studying for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore and spending a year of formation at All Saints on the Hudson parish in Mechanicville/Stillwater.)