Cathblog - Rethinking World Youth Day


After much reflection I took the decision recently not to go World Youth Day (WYD) in Brazil at the end of July.

With a real sense of gratitude for the privilege of having been before, it feels like the right choice, even though I had started learning Portuguese a number of months ago to enhance the experience.

My decision not to register was not because I don’t think that WYD is a worthy thing, but because on a deeper level, there exist some questions for me about what its frequency means for local youth ministries and the world’s Catholic population.  

Just two years after Madrid hosted an estimated 1.5 million pilgrims, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil expects perhaps three times this number to descend upon its beautiful shores, and to welcome a new Pope who, providentially, just happens to be a South American.

WYD is the only event in the Catholic Church’s calendar which receives these kinds of numbers. The only other comparable event is the hajj , the annual Muslim pilgrimage which draws around two million to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Not even the Conclave which elected Pope Francis got close to WYD and hajj numbers. The Soccer World Cup and the Olympics get maybe one-fifth of the 1.5 million figure. Manila’s WYD in 1995 with an estimated four million people, holds the record as the largest Papal gathering ever. So there’s something to be said for the communion which takes place with this experience of a truly universal Church.

At 30, I have been to my share of WYDs. Toronto in Canada was my first at age 19, Sydney in 2008 at age 26 and finally Madrid at age 29. Aware of the injustice that makes it possible for me to attend three times and others not at all, I decided to put together a short documentary called Putting the world into World Youth Day ( two years ago ahead of Madrid, to try and raise money for pilgrims from Kenya and Paraguay to attend.

And I began to ask: Is WYD ever truly World Youth Day? It can easily become ‘White Youth Day’ or ‘Western Youth Day’ when the vast majority of people who have the means to attend are from Europe, North America and Australia.

While efforts are made in these countries to fundraise for those who cannot afford the experience, there are very real questions about whether the money could be better spent in other areas such as human development or works of mercy.

The average Australian pilgrim spent between $4,000 and $7,000 to attend WYD in Madrid in 2011.  Almost 4,000 Australians were present at the Australian Gathering in Madrid.  

While it is difficult to find accurate statistics, the cost for African and South American nations seems significantly lower, indeed in some places a quarter of cost. Yet for some countries, this would be equivalent to a year’s salary.

For Australian Catholics, the question that is on many youth ministers’ minds is ‘does the very event of WYD mean that we have less time to focus on our own diocesan strategy?’

One youth ministry director in a Diocese confided to me recently that there was simply no question that they would organise a group to go to Brazil; it was an expectation, even though they had just taken 50 people to Madrid a few months before.

The short time frame between the two WYDs meant for this small office that the focus has become necessarily about getting a small number of people overseas, in some cases, fewer than 20, perhaps to the detriment of those left at home.

There are many good things happening in the lead-up to WYD in Brazil, and Australian pilgrims are participating in some mammoth fundraising efforts. Some will start their journeys by working with local communities in Lima, Peru; and others will visit Columban missionaries in Santiago, Chile. These efforts are what almost sold it to me.

However, the questions that remain are as follows: Is WYD a ‘just’ strategy for Youth Ministry in the Catholic Church in the World if it is prohibitively expensive for the majority to attend?

Could regional youth days be a better strategy for building up faith?

Could the frequency of WYD be changed so that people have more time to consider their attendance or fundraise to make it a truly global event?

Hopefully, the experience for the pilgrims will be profoundly life-changing. Perhaps when travelling into Rio, they will behold the sight of the thousands of people, in the world’s most populous Catholic country, living in “favelas” or “slums” which ring the perimeter of the city.

Perhaps this sight will help them to be grateful for what they have, and move them to do more. For to whom much is given, much will be expected.

Because although four million people gathered in Christ’s name will be an uplifting experience of communion; Christ is also there, probably even more present, among those Christians who cannot afford to feed their families, much less attend WYD.


Beth Doherty is communications director for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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