on world youth day

wydrioWorld Youth Day has arrived. This time around it will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between the 23-28th July, 2013, the 28th such event in the official count. It will see the first South American pontiff greet hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world, bringing attention to the Church in the Americas and the surrounding social and political milieu to which Pope Francis will no doubt speak.

It is no revelation that opinions differ about the value of World Youth Day, both here in Australia and abroad. In my experience it tends to be fairly evenly split between those who uphold the event as a transforming experience for the young and the cities and nations which host them, while others dismiss World Youth Day as an expensive jamboree that proves of little lasting significance for the ordinary life of the Church.

I think it can be recognised that this triennial – or as it tends to be now, biennial – gathering does in fact shape young Catholic imaginations about the catholicity of the Church, understood as a reference not to the mere geographic reach of the Church but the inherent variety of expression or styles that it contains and embraces.

More fundamentally, it offers the young an experience of pilgrimage, a tradition reaching back to first centuries of the Church’s history (this practice has largely been rejected by Protestantism due to the devotions and relics often associated with such travel). What has been said of the life of the French theologian Yves Congar can be affirmed more generally, “a journey only becomes a pilgrimage through consciousness of the goal that gives meaning to the way”. Pilgrimage calls for interior work that brings together an outward practice with the person and message to which such an undertaking intends and World Youth Day provides just such an opportunity for such growth in faith.

A Mixed Picture

PIGLRIMS PRAY DURING EUCHARISTIC ADORATION AT WORLD YOUTH YOUTH DAY VIGIL IN MADRIDOf course, the real impact of World Youth Day – which epitomises on a grand scale the events-based approach to youth ministry which is becoming more popular in dioceses and even our parishes – depends largely on the receptivity of participants themselves.

As the American journalist John L. Allen noted some years ago, World Youth Day pilgrims can usually be divided up into three broad groups:

  • those attending with personal intent, commitment and fervour (described as a “gung-ho inner core”). These “evangelical Catholics” are devoted believers, often attend Mass more than once a week, accept Church teachings and have a strong sense of Catholic identity;
  • a more lukewarm cohort who are open, identify as Catholic but are not as zealous about the faith; are willing to agree with some Catholic teachings but don’t necessarily accept them all;
  • and then there are others who are just along for the ride, perhaps because friends are going or their parents were prepared to pay for World Youth Day but not a summer in the Bahamas. These are the kids you find playing handball or loitering outside during the catechetical sessions; they have a looser affiliation with the Church and low levels of religious practice.

As for the cities that host World Youth Days, the responses are now familiar. The initial announcement of the event is normally greeted with negativity (as it was in Sydney and has been the case for Rio which hosts two other world events in as many years), there are predictable fears of disorganisation and a cost blowout, but all this eventually gives way to a warmer reception as the prospect of a civic apocalypse recedes.

wydsydPope Benedict XVI himself recognised this gradual acceptance of World Youth Day in host cities, in remarks to a seminarian soon after the Sydney event (2008):

At first [Australians] looked at this World Youth Day with great scepticism because it would obviously cause a lot of bother and many inconveniences to daily life, such as traffic jams etc. However, in the end – as we also saw in the media whose prejudices crumbled, bit by bit – everyone felt involved in this atmosphere of joy and faith; they saw that young people come and do not create problems of security or of any other kind, but can be together joyfully. (L’Osservatore Romano, 13-20 August 2008).

Is It Worth It?

Catholics, too, can be tempted to take the line of scepticism or cynicism towards World Youth Day with the concerns being twofold: accessibility and impact.

SB050Given that for Australians World Youth Day involves a substantial airfare, insurances and accommodation, there can be concerns that the event is not only unsustainable for families, local churches (dioceses) and their parishes but that the expense involved restricts access to a privileged few unless participation is heavily subsidised. On average, the cost of attending World Youth Day from down here in the Antipodes ranges between $5,000-8,000 depending on destination and it is unlikely to get any cheaper in years to come. Hence the need for concerted fundraising to get people there.

The second concern is that World Youth Day has little impact or effect on the lives of young people let alone the dioceses and communities from which they come. The two polarised views we hear about the effect of World Youth Day – the conviction that absolutely each and every participant becomes a fully-fledged disciple of Jesus Christ following the event, and the opposite belief that no one is moved a jot – underscores the need for research in this area.

As a nod in that direction, study of World Youth Day Sydney has demonstrated that the impact of the event on a believer has much to do with their starting religious point. Those starting from a lower point of religiosity – there more for the social than the spiritual aspects of World Youth Day – tend to report some increase in confidence in their faith (“I’m not embarrassed now to let others see that I am a believer”, “I’m now more interesting in learning about my faith”). For those with a stronger religious starting point, World Youth Day often serves as a catalyst to make an even more decisive commitment to their faith (“To accept Jesus as Lord of my life”, “Now I want to live as a disciple of Jesus, a witness to Him”).

Notably, it is usually from among those in the second group that you’re likely to hear World Youth Day described as a “life-changing experience”. Perhaps it is because these young people are already devout that this large-scale, Spirit-filled event fires their energy and consolidates their identity in ways that just aren’t experienced by those of lesser conviction, hence the claims to its power of conversion.

You can read more about the impact of World Youth Days in this session of the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (2009), entitled “Shoring up the foundations:  the large-scale international youth festival as a strategy for the retention of Catholic youth”.

Most of us with involvement in youth ministry would view World Youth Day in positive terms while at the same time acknowledging it is no silver bullet for outreach to and engagement of youth.

Implications for youth ministry

wydsyd2For those close to the ground in ministry with youth, is the events-based approach – epitomised by World Youth Day – the way to go? As intimated, it has certainly become a dominant model in dioceses and some parishes, and the advantages are apparent.

Youth ministry programs and groups often fail or succeed on their ability to attract a “critical mass” of attenders. No young person wants to go to an event with only a handful of participants. In the youth ministry game, for better or worse, numbers matter. So, rather than the week-to-week youth program of old, some parishes and dioceses are favouring the occasional, bigger budget, showcase event.

The downside of this approach is that it can lead to a rather lazy form of youth ministry where one-off events are thrown on the parish or diocesan calendar without any thought to the faith development of young people over the medium to long term. Unfortunately, this is all too common today and the lack of continuity and personalisation of youth ministry can lead to a loss of potential young disciples who were open, maybe even seeking but who never quite found a place to land.

While large youth events make everyone feel good and may serve the youth minister well in terms of visible accountability (‘proving’ the position is justified), the capacity of such gatherings to bring about actual growth in faith can never be assumed. People turning up doesn’t mean people ‘turning on’ or people ‘turning around’. Holding an increasing number of youth events may actual divert energy from more intimate forms of ministry which may better generate disciples and help identify future leaders than the event-driven model.

SB051Whatever the preference, consistency in youth ministry is key because each generation deserves to hear the Gospel in the context of a community. Curiously, some would suggest there is too much emphasis on youth in our Church. Others would counter with humour, “Look around – everything we do seems to be for the elderly!”

While parishes do not hesitate in organising and funding services and outreach to the aged, primary school aged children and other distinct segments of the community, they often need real encouragement in responding to adolescents and young adults. One would have thought evangelisation and pastoral care admit of no exceptions.

As I’ve suggested in a previous blog, our parishes so often want these young people for their energy, witness and the hope that they bring to a greying Church but young people will not be attracted to communities that show no life, enthusiasm or generosity in themselves. I maintain that the absence or presence of young people in the life of the Church is, in part, a function of the vitality of its adult members whom they will one day become.


christtheredeemerAll in all, as a recurring feature of the Church’s outreach to youth, World Youth Days should be commended and supported. Of course, cynicism within and beyond the Church about this international event will continue to abound. However, cynicism is often a buffer against personal commitment and the folly of hacks and commentators who often make little effort themselves in this area of the Church’s life. An alternative to cynicism is hope and World Youth Day brings tonnes of it.

As for the next World Youth Day? The safe money is on Krakow, Poland, given John Paul II’s impending canonisation and his status as the originator of the World Youth Day events. 2015 also marks the 10th anniversary of the pontiff’s death so we could see the next World Youth Day a little sooner than expected. World Youth Day has been held in Poland just once before, in 1991, hosted by the southern city of Częstochowa.

As a local plug, you can read about the experiences of pilgrims in Rio from my own Diocese of Parramatta at their blog. Don’t hesitate to share your own views on World Youth Day and comment on how it might be better supported and integrated here in Australia.

6 thoughts on “on world youth day

  1. The local fund raising aspect of WYD is important. For many parishes it is the only time parishioners visibly see the youth actively engaged in parish life, since so many of them gravitate to the youth Mass and aren’t often seen at the other parish Masses. A lot of social functions to bring parishioners together, eg fund raising trivia nights, wouldn’t happen without the WYD stimulus.

    Very few commentaries on WYD talk about the long term impact of WYD. How a diocesan pilgrimage of youngsters, priests and bishop forms long lasting working relationships and a sense of diocesan identity is rarely discussed. These pilgrims will be the parish council members, diocesan workers and committee representatives, and leaders of current and new initiatives of mercy and evangelisation in the decades to come. It is an investment in the long term health of our diocesan and parish infrastructures.

    For Australians, land locked as we are, the opportunity to see the international dimension of Catholicism and to be inspired by the saints and religious artworks of other cultures and centuries is not only priceless but necessary. WYD gives us that opportunity and if we didn’t have it then we would need to invent something similar to give our young people a taste of the historicity and diversity of expression that our faith has.

    The evangelical power of all of the photos, Facebook entries, blogposts, video logs and tweets being produced by WYD pilgrims shouldn’t be underestimated either.

    • Hi Catherine, thank you for your far sighted comments. I think you are right on the longer term influence that WYD can effect for younger Catholics and the wider Church as well. In my experience the pre-WYD pilgrimage experiences, for example the mission projects taking place in Lima and Peru, on route to Rio are having a deep impact on pilgrims’ perceptions of poverty and the urgency of a Christian response, not only abroad in the favelas but also in our own suburbs and cities. It has also, as you say, served as an important way of raising a sense of diocesan identity. No doubt many of the pilgrims represent our future leaders, as the journalist John Allen has said, those who are “most likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most likely to enroll in graduate programs of theology, and most likely to pursue a career in the church as a lay person – youth ministers, parish life coordinators, liturgical ministers, diocesan officials, and so on.” With the time between WYDs shortening in recent history and potentially in the future, from 3 years to 2, it will be interesting to see if local churches (dioceses) can sustain the energy to send significant groups of pilgrims in years ahead. Thanks for sharing your views, Daniel

  2. Thanks Daniel for your insight. I have been lucky enough to attend two overseas World Youth Days and both have been amazing experiences as a pilgrimage, in my own faith development and in my commitment to work within the Catholic Church.

    The World Youth Day week (I never quite understood that logic) is a full on, event filled, people filled, faith filled time full of prayerful experiences in the silence of hundreds of thousands of people which is amazing as well as the jubilation of the festival filled streets of the hosting country. The week itself also presents many logistical challenges that come with large crowds and events – being squashed amid crowds, missing out on food, heat waves, anxiety attacks, dehydration, missing events as the public transport was not able to cope – all adding to the joy that is World Youth Day – well, this is how I now look back on it!

    If a WYD group is lucky enough to experience a pilgrimage pre-World Youth Day, often I find this is where the most meaningful experiences are found. Celebrating Mass in the most amazing and obscure locations, witnessing the glory of God in the amazing surrounds of the nature, spending time with the local people and the small group experiences with people who soon become your close friends have provided me with many memories and stories where I can honestly say I felt the presence of God. I am sure those groups now witnessing such things in South America will resonate with this.

    As much as the World Youth Day experiences are amazing in themselves, I strongly believe the preparation for a pilgrimage such as World Youth Day is where a lot of the growth of the young people is born. A preparation program within a parish supported by a diocese or movement is vital. I have been a part of a volunteer program where potential pilgrims volunteer in new areas of ministry within their parish for the 2-3 years before World Youth Day. The fruits of this program has been amazing! It has developed young leaders who have key roles in parishes beyond their World Youth Day pilgrimage, not because they are the ‘token youth’ but because they have chosen to make an ongoing commitment as a result of their interaction with the parish before World Youth Day. And not only in areas of youth ministry, but in music ministry across the parish, on pastoral councils, in liturgical ministry, in outreach to our school students – the list goes on! This practical ministry accompanied by spiritual formation, direction and reflection offers a depth of preparation that simply having fundraising activities alone cannot match. This is where the joy is for me – that I have seen these young people be encouraged to become involved in all areas of parish life modelling true comprehensive youth ministry, not just the event based activities.

    • Thanks so much Lisa, your testimony is rich and certainly reflects your experience in the field. As you described, dioceses and their parishes have taken to parish internships over the last few WYDs in which young people embed themselves in parish ministry for a number of nominated hours per week in exchange for full or part sponsorship to WYD.

      From experience, an internship of this type demands that a parish be well organised and supervision is provided and committed to maintaining the integrity of the internship and that the young people involved are given support throughout the preparation. So, I wonder if this model can be realised only by larger parishes with adequate staff and resources for supervision and coordination? Often small parishes need the most support to get young people to WYD so the question is what options are available to these communities?

      Another observation to make with regards the adult community is that there is a concern that WYD, even in its preparation and internships related to it, are available only for a small number of youth compared to the entire youth membership of the parish (as I blogged, there’s a concern about accessibility). This may only be a perception but it nonetheless influences the degree of support that adults give to WYD and related parish fundraising and events.

      There can also be a fear that WYD is a “one-off” for pilgrims, which highlights the importance of WYD returnees giving testimony about their pilgrimage, giving thanks for the community that gets them there and continuing to contribute to the community in a visible way I think. This might go some way to assuaging any scepticism that can surround the event, at least that’s been my experience. The parish models to support WYD attendance have to be well thought through. It will be exciting to see how parish support of the event changes or evolves over the coming years, Daniel

  3. Interesting questions offering one to think about different ways we can do things.

    My experience of internship has also been in larger parishes but I believe that if parishes are willing to work together and look at different models for leadership, smaller parishes can also benefit from Internship. For example, you ask the question can an internship only work if a parish has adequate staff and resources for coordination and supervision? My response would be no. An internship can still work. What if a smaller parish were to work with a larger parish on this project? So for example, when I was coordinating the program for 3 people in the parish where I was working, it would have been easy to add another few people to the group. These people from other parishes could join in on the formation evenings and review nights we had – we generally met once or twice a month – which would probably have made the whole experience richer as there would be more experience to share and learn from. I would have been there for additional support when required. The experience would have been wonderful for these young people to see how different parishes work and reinforces that Church goes beyond one’s own parish boundaries.

    As for day-to-day or week-by-week parish supervision, I am sure there are people in most parishes with experience in management and supervision. It doesn’t have to be the parish priest or parish employee. Why not invite a respected parishioner, maybe someone from finance committee or parish council, to take on the role of supervision, in consultation with the parish priest? The supervisor could meet with the diocesan youth staff or other suitable person to understand what is involved and then go from there. I suppose this would also be a mentoring relationship. Perfect for an internship model. In these situations I would think that a Diocesan Youth Ministry team would also be available for support for both the intern and the supervisor and smaller parishes in general. The mentor could also work with the young person on their return about how they will best share their gifts and talents and World Youth Day experience in the parish.

    This young person then, on their return from World Youth Day could also be a supervisor/mentor (if suitable) to a new intern candidate. What a wonderful way to give back to the parish and ensure that the World Youth Day experience is not a ‘one-off’!

    The comment about World Youth Day being available to a small number of youth is an interesting one. I would think World Youth Day is open to anyone who has enough passion to want to go – and obviously is old enough!

    Does the question come down to if the parish can afford to support more than one person? Again, this comes down to creativity and maybe creating alternate models. Maybe a young person can pay for a third of their fare and not complete so many internship hours. Maybe the interns can be have fundraisers beyond BBQ’s such as trivia nights, bush dances, parish fair that not only raise funds but that are community building. Again, the idea of parishes or deaneries working together towards fundraising may also be an option.

    These are just a few of my own thoughts. There are always new ideas and creative ways to get around situations that present themselves. If we are committed to working together in mission to grow the kingdom of God, in whatever form it may take, then I believe we should always be open to different and innovative ways to do so.

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