Is World Youth Day Worth It?

Slide1My Facebook newsfeed in recent days has been filled with exciting stories and photos about World Youth Day (WYD)—which ended today with a Mass in Rio. Yet again, we have had some amazing quotes from Pope Francis on his visit to Brazil reminding us about the church’s social and ethical obligations towards the poor. However, does Francis’s vision of an engaged and humble church committed to the poor fit with the church’s major event for young adults?

As in previous years, there has been little to no critical evaluation from inside the church as to the effectiveness and impact of the World Youth Day. While this youth festival corresponds well with the media-driven culture of globalization, several questions must be asked.

  • Is it the most effective use of our limited resources?
  • What theologies and ecclesiologies are reflected in the World Youth Day?
  • Is the organization of the program done in a transparent, participatory and ethical manner?
  • What is the impact of the WYD on the local economy and the global environment (carbon footprint)?
  • More importantly perhaps, what is the real impact of the World Youth Day on the poor?

An excellent article by Philippe Vaillancourt in Quebec, puts it this way:

Since the arrival of Pope Francis, we saw the papacy question habits and adopt a new style…[However] WYD is strongly marked by obscene spending in the context of Catholicism Universal, a paradoxical undeniable ecological footprint and impact of mixed. Recognizing this, a simple question arises: the current formula WYD is it still morally acceptable within the Church? Asking this question is ultimately an interest in the credibility that the Church wants to have the eyes of the youth.

Before addressing these questions, let me clarify my experience with WYD. In 1997, I attended my first WYD in Paris. After getting involved in the leadership of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS-Pax Romana), I helped to organize pilgrim groups and some of the only Catholic social teaching themed programs at the WYDs in Rome (2000), Toronto (2002) Cologne (2005) and without actually getting there myself for the Sydney WYD (2008).

As President of IMCS, I was an official member of the WYD planning conferences organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity and was involved in the events around the visit of the WYD Cross to Africa.

Clearly there are many positive aspects of the World Youth Day.  It has facilitated many spiritual and social experiences for young adults and it has raised the profile of the church. It has also been a boost for the new ecclesial movements. Nevertheless, several issues must be addressed.

G-8 Day?
While many young people are privileged to attend a WYD, the vast majority of young adult Catholics will never have that chance. This is particularly the case for young people coming from Africa and Asia- the two places where the Church is growing quickly. Despite a very small solidarity fund, the cost and problems in obtaining visas and difficulty of taking time off of work/school is prohibitive for most young adults. A friend from Africa once described the WYD in Germany as the G-8 Day (in reference to the Group of 8 powerful economies). Even for young adults from the United States, the $4,000 price tag is not something that most families and parishes can afford.

Clearly having this year’s event in Brazil is an important moment, but nearly all the programs have been organized in wealthy nations and nearly all of them have resulted in millions of dollars of debt for the hosting church. (The Canadian church was left with a hefty 30 million dollar debt after the Toronto WYD.) At one of the official planning committee sessions, one curial official nearly laughed a suggestion I made that a future WYD be organized in Africa. No country in Africa, he responded, could afford it.  This should give us pause on a number of levels.

Festival or Solidarity
In recent weeks, Pope Francis has been speaking of the challenge to transform globalization with solidarity. In theory, the WYD has a lot of potential to develop cross-cultural relationships and engender a sense of the universal church. In practice, however, there is only so much that festival can do.

Building real solidarity at WYD is hindered by three factors. First, housing arrangements and many events, like the catechetical sessions are generally organized according to language and national groups thereby reducing the possibility of encountering people from other parts of the world. Second, leaders of big groups don’t generally (for good reason) want individual young people to go off on their own, so it’s very difficult for pilgrims to make real relationships with others outside their big pilgrim groups. Finally, conversations and programs on solidarity and social justice are not seen as a priority in the WYD programming. In all the WYDs I went to, social justice and Catholic social teaching rarely appeared on the program (other than the side events organized by the Catholic action youth movements, Caritas, and a few others).

The most notable exception to this has been the side events organized by a few groups, especially the Jesuits with their Magis program. Sadly—at least as of 2009—these side events have been frowned upon by the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Ecclesiology and Ethics
What is the ecclesiology of the WYD? At one glance, particularly in the past around John Paul II, the WYD might reflect an church of a personality cult where the Pope is more like Bono or Springsteen at a concert rather than the Pontiff.  Who is the subject of the WYD—young people or the pope?

A more fundamental question that needs to be addressed is what is our vision of the church’s engagement with young adults. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity beautifully highlighted the responsibilities of young adult Catholics in the church and in the world. The council also speaks directly of the importance of the youth-led movements including the movements of specialized Catholic action.

Unfortunately in many ways, the World Youth Day does not reflect this vision. The event, in many ways, is controlled and directed by the so-called “new ecclesial movements” rather than the youth movements of Catholic action.

Furthermore, the cost of sending a few pilgrims to the WYD and the cost of hosting the event has sadly seen resulted in cutting funding for youth apostolic work in other areas. Both Germany and Canada, for example, cut back on their support for youth programs after incurring millions in debt after hosting the WYD. It is tragic that the high cost events for a lucky few have come with the cutting of budgets for youth organizations and programs at the national, international and local levels. No one event can ever be as effective as the sustained engagement in a youth organization.

Alternative Proposal
1. Thankfully, the framework for an alternative model exists. First, instead of organizing the next WYD in Poland in 2016, the church should direct more of its focus to mark the annual celebrations of WYD (Palm Sunday) at the local and national levels. A mega event could still be organized, but perhaps not as frequently. A major event every 10 years might be more effective and meaningful than one every 3-4 years. This might even give us enough time to prepare and fund a WYD in Africa or South Asia where the church is growing.

2. Second, instead of focusing attention on an event, more energy can be directed to support existing youth-led organizations in the church and to facilitate the creation of new ones. The smaller scale, more meaningful trainings like the Jesuit’s Magis or the international study sessions by IMCS and other youth movements should continue.  A multimillion dollar foundation to support international youth solidarity efforts could be much more effective in connecting young people across borders.

3. Finally, as part of the curial reform, the official planning committee of the WYD might become a more serious space where young adult leaders (not just youth ministers and bishops) from each bishops’ conference and each international youth organization could meet, share best practices, and dialogue about the future of a church humbly committed to the poor and the youth.

We can do better. We must do better. The Gospel demands it.


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