On one hand, I think that World Youth Day is a very good idea and has the capacity to change the lives of young Catholics for the better by guiding them to a deeper love for, knowledge of, and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve witnessed exactly that kind of positive transformation in several young people I have known who have attended WYD, and I know of several men who discovered their vocation to the priesthood as a result of attending WYD. Deo gratias.
On the other hand, though, I must admit that I have been dismayed and perplexed by some of the oddball things that have happened at past WYDs, including the three I have personally attended: Denver (1993), Manila (1995) and Paris (1997). Understandably, a good deal of criticism about WYD has been swirling around out there for years — some of it for antics that absolutely merited denunciation (e.g., when a woman portrayed Jesus Christ in a living stations of the cross in Mile High Stadium).
But some of the carping, especially that emanating from the amen corner of certain schismatic, independent-chapel types, is based mainly on an entrenched disdain for Blessed Pope John Paul II, the prime architect of WYD. “If JPII did it, I’m agin it!” is the knee-jerk attitude some of those folks display toward anything the late pontiff had a hand in.
For my part, I freely, if reluctantly, grant that there were some seriously problematic things the late Holy Father did that I dearly wish he had not done (e.g., kissing a Koran, the Assisi inter-religious prayer events, allowing altar girls), as well as one thing in particular that I dearly wish he had done but didn’t: namely, to have sacked at least a few of those notoriously malfeasant, corrupt, and publicly heterodox bishops who did such tremendous damage to the church during the wasting years of their devouring regimes.
But that’s just me.
For the record, I love and esteem Pope John Paul II and am convinced of his heroic personal sanctity. And yet, I also recognize that the variegated aspects of his pontificate are a needed reminder of the hard lesson that even good and holy and courageous popes like him, are imperfect and can make mistakes in how they govern the Church.
News flash! The pope (no pope) is perfect. Yep. The Church never said they are.
Pope Benedict XVI has been forthright about this and about his own need for God’s grace and guidance as he carries the heavy cross of the papacy. For example, he said:
“Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Pray for me that I may learn to love the Lord more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more” (Address given in St. Peter’s Square, April 25, 2005).
Far from fleeing from controversy and confrontation, Pope Benedict, ever charitable and irenic, stands up resolutely to some of the baseless criticism leveled at himself and his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, regarding World Youth Day.
The phenomenon of World Youth Days has increasingly become a subject of debate, in an attempt to understand this species, so to speak, of youth culture.
Australia had never seen so many people coming from all continents, not even during the Olympics, as it did during World Youth Day. And although fears were expressed beforehand that this mass influx of young people might create some problems for public order – clogging traffic, disrupting daily life, sparking violence and drug abuse – all these fears proved unfounded. The event was a celebration of joy, a joy that in the end spread even to the doubtful, and when all was said and done, no one was inconvenienced.
Those days were festive for everyone. Indeed, it was only then that people came to realize what a celebration really is – an event where people, so to speak, step outside themselves, beyond themselves, and thus are truly with themselves and with others.
What, then, really happens at a World Youth Day? What are the forces at play? Popular analyses tend to view these days as a variant of contemporary youth culture, a sort of rock festival in an ecclesial key, with the Pope as its main attraction. Such analyses presume that, with or without faith, these festivals would be basically the same; and thus the whole question of God can be set aside. Even some Catholics would seem to agree, seeing the whole event as a huge spectacle, magnificent perhaps, but of no real significance for the question of faith and the presence of the Gospel in our time. They might be ecstatic celebrations, but in the end they would really change nothing, nor have any deeper effect on life.
This, however, leaves completely unexplained the real nature of these Youth Days and the specific character of their joy, and their power to build communion.
First of all, it has to be realized that World Youth Days do not consist only of the one week when they are brought to the attention of the world. They are preceded by a long process of preparation both practical and spiritual. The Cross, accompanied by the icon of the Mother of the Lord, goes on pilgrimage to many countries. Faith, in its own way, needs to see and to touch. The encounter with the World Youth Day Cross, which is touched and carried, becomes an interior encounter with the One who died for us on the Cross. The encounter with the Cross awakens within the young people the remembrance of the God who chose to become man and to suffer with us. We also see the woman he gave to us as our Mother.
The solemn World Youth Days are nothing if not the culmination of a long process in which the young people turn to one another and then, together, turn to Christ. In Australia it was not by chance that the Way of the Cross, winding through the city, became the high point of those days. Once again, it summed up everything that had occurred in previous years, while pointing to the One who gathers us together: to that God who loves us all the way to the Cross. Thus, the Pope himself is not the star around which everything revolves. He is completely and solely a Vicar. He points beyond himself to the Other who is in our midst.
In the end, the solemn liturgy is the centre of the whole event, because in it there takes place something that we ourselves cannot bring about, yet something for which we are always awaiting. Christ is present. He comes into our midst. The heavens are rent and the earth filled with light. This is what makes life joyful and free, uniting people with one another in a joy that cannot be compared to the ecstasy of a rock festival. Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “The important thing is not to be able to organize a party but to find people who can enjoy it”. According to Scripture, joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22). This fruit was abundantly visible during those days in Sydney.
Just as a long journey precedes the celebration of World Youth Day, a continuing journey follows it. Friendships are formed which encourage a different way of life and which give it deep support. The purpose of these great Days is, not least, to inspire such friendships and so to create places of living faith in the world, places which are, at the same time, settings of hope and practical charity. . . . (continue reading)