What brings youths all over the world to this Church celebration?
H. Richard McCord tries to uncover the special power of WYD.

IN 1985, Blessed Pope John Paul II began a pilgrimage of young people to Rome. This gave birth to World Youth Day (WYD), which has increased in size and popularity year by year.

Now celebrated every two or three years in a different country, this weeklong event will draw more than a million youths to Madrid this summer from Aug 16-21.

Temperatures soar in Spain at that time of year. Airline fares have already risen sharply. Travel is frequently troublesome, especially with heightened security.

Many young people have been working for two years to raise money for travel, and some are still doing so. Yet, in spite of obstacles even more severe than these, participants will converge on WYD from every corner of the world.

A good number have done it before and have pledged to keep on coming. Why? Is there a special brand of WYD magic, a spirit that captivates even the most reluctant?

Based on my attending six WYD celebrations since 1993 and preparing for a seventh, I can offer a few ideas about the appeal of the event for young people and the adults who support them.

WYD places on display the universality, diversity and richness of Catholicism in ways that are informative, inspiring, engaging, spiritually uplifting and a lot of fun. All of this speaks to youthful desires for relationships, adventure, learning and celebration, and the need to find one’s place and identity within a community of faith and tradition.

At the beginning of his pontificate, Blessed John Paul challenged us to “open wide the doors to Christ”. He repeated this often in his ministry, especially on the occasion of WYDs. Pope Benedict XVI has enthusiastically continued the tradition of WYD, calling it “an encounter with Christ!”

Foremost among the many ways to encounter Christ is the celebration of the Eucharist, which takes place every day, and in the sacrament of Reconciliation, which is available throughout the entire time.

There are many other opportunities for prayer in large and small settings, including an outdoor Way of the Cross and a huge prayer vigil at which the pope presides.

For many young pilgrims, seeing and hearing the Holy Father is a highlight of the event along with encounters with the thousands of bishops, priests, deacons and other Church ministers there.

WYD has a strong teaching component. On three days there are three-hour religious education sessions in different language groups. Bishops and a team of lay facilitators and musicians lead the sessions. Further faith formation is possible through the speeches of the pope, lectures, witness talks, concerts, artistic programmes and exhibits, prayer services, Eucharistic adoration, etc.

Over the years, WYD has developed the right mix of spiritual, catechetical, social, artistic and cultural elements that bring young people into contact with the richness of the Catholic faith.

Some very common reactions during and after the event are: “I now feel part of something much larger;” “I received a lot of support for living my faith,” and simply, “I’m proud to be a Catholic.”

For some young people, the WYD pilgrimage attunes them to hearing Christ’s call to a vocation.

Studies have shown that about one-third of men being ordained priests these days say that WYD was a key element in their vocational journey. Young women have found that WYD sensitised them to a religious vocation, and there are stories of young men and women who heard the call to marriage and found their future spouse at the event.

Pilgrims this year should expect the usual structure to the event but with some distinctively Spanish twists. For example, the Way of the Cross celebrated along an avenue in central Madrid will be in the style of los pasos. This celebration features 14 great sculptural works from different Spanish cities that depict Christ’s journey to Calvary. n

McCord is the director of the US bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth

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