World Youth Days are not debauched rock festivals, but joyful encounters with Christ

Pope Benedict XVI leads Benediction at World Youth Day in Sydney (CNS photo)

When I blogged a few months ago about the enduring legacy of Blessed John Paul II, in particular the World Youth Day (WYD) that he began to hold every three years around the world during his pontificate, several posts that followed were severely critical. Was I not aware that these were simply youth rock festivals with the Pope as the main celebrity, places where all sorts of dodgy liturgical experiments and wholesale immorality took place? Actually, no I wasn’t.

It is always easier to be negative rather than positive – especially when it comes to the Church. I have a tendency to be like this myself, so I know this cast of mind well. But having known personally of several young people who have attended WYDs in the past and whose faith has been shaped by the experience, I share the mindset of the late pope and now of his successor, Benedict XVI, who see these occasions as a joyful public celebration of faith, capable of inspiring young people with memories that last the rest of their lives.

Three of my children were at the WYD in Rome in the year 2000 and were very moved to listen to the aged John Paul II and to witness his own strong faith. Now my grandson, aged 16, has gone to Spain with a party from the Oxford Oratory, led by several Oratorian priests, to attend the WYD in Madrid. My hope is that he will make lasting friends there and come to know and love his faith better. What more could a grandmother want?

Those who hoped that Pope Benedict would quietly drop the WYDs as not being part of his more low-key pontifical “style”, compared to his predecessor, have been disappointed. The Holy Father, in a recent speech, addressed such critics head-on: referring to the WYD in Sydney in 2008, he said: “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…”

The Pope then asked: “What really happens at a World Youth Day?… 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… Even some Catholics would seem to agree, seeing the whole event as a huge spectacle… [which] would really change nothing, nor have any deeper effect on life”.

The Holy Father then spoke of the spiritual preparation that preceded this event; the WYD Cross, carried by relays of young people “which becomes an interior encounter with the One who died for us on the Cross”; his own position, not as the star attraction, but as “a Vicar [who] points beyond himself to the Other who is in our midst”. Finally, he emphasised the “solemn liturgy [which] is the centre of the whole event: “Christ is present. He comes into our midst. The heavens are rent and the earth filled with light.” The “joy” of experiencing a WYD “cannot be compared to the ecstasy of a rock festival,” he said. The Pope concluded with pointing out that at WYDs “friendships are formed which encourage a different way of life and which give it deep support”.

The Holy Father’s words are spot on. Let’s cease the jeremiads then, and trying to ferret out anecdotes of youthful debauchery, and pray to Our Lady – as the Pope requests – “to bring the expected fruits to this meeting”.