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.

Conclusion

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.

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