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World Youth Days

I have two questions about World Youth Days. The first is prompted by reading that some three million people attended the papal Mass on the Copacabana beach. Is the Mass intended for such massive gatherings? Aren’t there other types of services that could be devised instead? I don’t think that every significant occasion in the life of the Church requires that a Mass be celebrated.

And then, how broad, how deep, and how enduring is the effect of such “Catholic Woodstocks”? Enzo Bianchi notes that many people observe that when the young people return to their dioceses and parishes, they’re often disappointed at how few initiatives are taken to reproduce and convey the intensity of the WYD experience. What kind of initiatives need to be taken on local levels for the experience to have any lasting effect?

The founder and prior of Bose suggests that Pope Francis’s pastoral style and his actions and words in Brazil might be taken up and applied in more ordinary pastoral situations and become the ordinary way to bear witness to the faith:

What bishop could not stop and meet and chat with his faithful, enter the houses of the poorest in his diocese and share a coffee with them, or visit the prisons of his city, or embrace strangers so they’ll sense that Christ’s love for all of humanity knows no frontiers? And what pastor or priest could not decide to meet and greet, one-by-one, the people entrusted to his pastoral care, get to know their joys and sufferings, accompany them in their wearying daily search for meaning? And what young person could not devote his energies to alleviating the suffering of people around him, convey his enthusiasm in taking care of people of his own age.., and dialogue with those who have preceded them on the path of faith? And what Christian community could not “go out into the streets,” “go to the peripheries,” strip themselves of their security, welcome people other themselves?

Yes, what we have seen Pope Francis do and heard him say in these days in Brazil could provide an example that everyone can understand, offer the possibility of recognizing that the Christian life is basically simple. It can and does entail toil, suferings, difficulties in giving up the mind-set of this world, in opening oneself up to solidarity, in banishing egoism and personal interests, but it is so close to the deepest desires of our hearts, to our desire for peace, justice, universal brotherhood. “If the Pope comes among us, nothing will be as it was before,” the inhabitants of the Varginha favela said. Who knows if the poor, old and young, of the quarters of our Europe of markets might soon say the same thing: “If a bishop, a priest, a Christian, a young person, bends down to us, stands beside us, listens to us, speaks to us, nothing will be the same as it was before.”

If the Pope's actions and words had effects of this sort, one might also feel a little re-assured that the in-built tendency of World Youth Days, as presently organized and celebrated, towards papalotry can be counter-balanced by what is taking place in communities, parishes, and dioceses.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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To have a mountaintop experience, descend from the mountain, and then feel disappointment that the world at large has continued to chug along as it did before, is not unique to World Youth Days.  I experienced it as a teen after going through a Teens Encounter Christ weekend.  I believe folks who go through RCIA experience it.  I've experienced it after national musician conventions, and after CRHP weekends.  For that matter, it happened after ordination.  Maybe after the wedding day?  After birth?

The mountain is different and separate from the everyday world.  What happens there can't be recreated down below.  Perhaps we need to help folks understand that discipleship is different down there than it is up there.  But we have the memories and inspiration of the mountaintop experience to stoke the fires of our discipleship.  


Why cannot we conceive of WYD as a kind of mediating institution that you described in another post?

I think WYD serves a useful purpose in that it gives young people a sense of the universality of the Church and helps them to connect with young people from all kinds of diverse cultures. It also provides an opportunity for the bishops and popes to connect with the youth in a venue. I can't imagine that this would not have a lasting impact in some fashion.

Of course local continuity is important and there does need to be groups and associations that can carrry out the mission and enthusiasm. The creation of groups and associations for specific purposes is a challenge but should be a corrolary to WYD.

The quote by the prior of Bose is a great one but I don't see how these two things are mutually exclusive. Francis can set a compelling example for Christian witness and it is up to all the faithful to take it up in their own fashion.

More than 50 years ago, our parish had an assistant pastor known and well regarded for outreach to folks in the nearby public housing project and adjacent blue-collar neighborhoods.  He set up recreational activities for youth on parish grounds including marble tournaments, foot races, etc.  He was known for visiting families in the projects, asking how they were doing and offering encouragemet, helping them get assistance if possible.  When he left the parish for mission work out of state, he was given a reception that attracted several hundred people who appreciated his generosity.  He was not known for keeping to himself in the rectory or pontificating.  Very down-to-earth.  He was truly missed.

George D.:   WYD doesn't strike me as a "mediating institution" at all, it's so focused on the presence, actions, and words of the pope. He becomes the galvanizing figure.  We are so used to seeing this in the last couple of popes that we forget what an "incredible inflation" (Congar's phrase) of the papal role has take place in the last two centuries. 

"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."  Matthew 18:20

Many years ago, I encountered a provocative question based on this very familiar verse:  What would it mean if Jesus’ instruction is to be read not as a minimum, but as a maximum? 

The question comes (perhaps) more naturally to a Protestant than to a Catholic, though the proliferation of Protestant mega-churches might belie that.  Still, Fr. Komonchak’s concern about the meaning of 3 million people at mass on the Copacabana seems well placed.

Fr. Helmut Schüller, who's been giving talks around the US about church reform, said this about why not many young people were going to his talks ...

"My theory is that younger people have lost the patience that we have," Schüller said, pointing out that his generation is willing to ask politely for meetings with hierarchy then to wait, discuss, and try the whole process over again. For young people, [a bishop] has no influence on their thinking, no authority," he said. "They don't have patience. They say, 'We shouldn't wait; we should do it.' " ...... "A lot of these young people are now gathering with Pope Francis [at World Youth Day in Brazil]," he said. "They enjoy the big community there, but when they come home, they have discussions with their priest about their daily life. It's a very pragmatic approach." ....


I think this blog post helpfully address some of these questions, and more, about WYD...

Yes, WYD contributes to papalotry, a form of idolatry. WYD is designed for religion as theater.

But the pope's Sunday Mass on Copacabana Beach provided a beautiful natural setting. The media provided wonderful aerial photographs -- wonderful free publicity for the tourism business in Rio.

Pope John Paul II seemed to enjoy religion as theater. When I was in the Jesuits years ago, I participated at a huge outdoor Mass at which he was the celebrant at the North American Martyrs Shrine in Canada. The fields were filled with people. The altar was on a elevated platform. It was a very impressive ceremony. However, having participated in that ceremony, I am not eager to participate in another huge spectacle like it.

But it was a memorable event to participate in. I imagine that for most of the people who particpated in the pope's Mass Sunday on Copacabana Beach, it wasa memorable event.


Thanks for this post.  There must be upwards of 10 million young Catholics who've attended at least part of a World Youth Day celebration.  I wonder what the impact has been upon them---both the immediate impact, but also (if there is one) the impact over the years and decades as they look back on the experience.

I wish some psychologists would study whether people in crowds such as Woodstock and Mardi Gras, etc.,  experience some sort of altered state of consciousness, and whether there are any specifically religious states.  I suspect that they do.  I don't like crowds and haven't been to Marti Gras in fifty years, but I know dozens and dozens and dozens of people here who seem not only to love it but seem to *need* it.  The sense of community in such crowds is apparently very real and very strong in them.

I don't think that the feelings are necessarily trivial ones, and I wonder if they can be specifically religious.  If so, then the Church should study what the advantages of such worship are.  I'm sure there is also a certain brainlessness in some crowds, and we all know that crowd psychology can be dangerous.  But all the more reason to study crowd experiences objectively.  

What do the liturgists out there think of mass-Masses?

Fr. K - my parents attended a papal mass in the Holy Land a number of years ago.  I don't think there were three million people in attendance, but I'm sure there were tens of thousands.  They arrived hours before it began, but such a crowd already had gathered that they were very far back.  They couldn't see or hear anything.  They did get communion.  It was a memorable occasion for them, but I don't think it comported with the ideal of full, active and conscious participation.

World Youth Days could happen without the Pope being the sole focus of attention.  I understand he is the rock-star draw, but he could more or less parachute in to celebrate a single mass and then helicopter back out.  Whatever other good things come from teens and young adults from all over the world coming together for a week could still happen without all the other papal appearances.  



The TV experience of a World Youth Day isn't the same as the lived experience, which is remarkably like any other pilgrimage. It's mostly a week of inconveniences and deprivations with a lot of other people, who often edify you.

The big papal Masses aren't a big part of the experience, in terms of percentage of time, and a lot of their meaning does not come just from the Pope but from the enormous, international group you're spending that time with.

In the sense that the meaning does come from the Pope, it's a lot like the difference between having Mass with your parish's pastor and having Mass in the cathedral with your bishop, only this is the first of bishops with a universal jurisdiction.

It did seem to me that any sense of genuine participation was lacking. I've heard Taize songs sung by thousands, successfully enough that I believe they might catch hold of a million-voice choir. Not sure, but they would certainly have a better chance than the through-composed ad hoc songs that the chosen few on the stage have been practicing for weeks.

Is it conceivable to have a WYD with the local ordinary or even (gasp!) a charismatic priest as the homilist at the final Mass and with the pope simply videoing in a welcome at an appropriate time? We haven't had any recent popes who qualify as "youth" anyway.

I don't have any problem with Pope Francis tying in his first foreign trip with WYD this early in his pontificate because it was a good opportunity to lay down some markers -- which he certainly did. But by 2016 he'll be a little old for rock stardom unless he wants invidious comparisons drawn to Mick Jagger. The idea of WYD could, with a little planning and promotion, go on without the pope in the flesh.

And, yes, I have problems with massive Masses where the people who can't hear and see are smoking and talking about futbol around the edges. But you can get that even in some of our cathedrals. And the WYD Masses do seem to have an impact on most of the participants.

a lot of their meaning comes from the enormous, international group you're spending that time with.

I would guess that much. I attended a regional version of the same, with 10000 youth, and what struck them the most was the sense of togetherness, of community, for example when a big "Amen" roars up from the crowd. They come as a group to sing or shout or dance in praise of God, together. One main goal is to experience unity with one another, but it is unity in Christ, as the leaders and the lyrics of the songs always remind them.

When I attended, the first evening, when there was only a preliminary partial meeting of 1000 youth, a musician was heating the room (the church, actually), the youth's enthusiasm gradually increased, they started climbing on the pews and yelling the lyrics, and at the end of the evening they were all screaming "Jesus I love you!" I was non-plussed. Most would rather sulk than sing in normal circumstances in church. Under normal circumstances most would not be caught dead saying "Jesus I love you". The musician was obviously very skillful, but it was also vaguely disturbing. It seemed that one could make them say pretty much anything. It's part of the spirit of the thing to let go of all inhibitions and freely do the same thing as everybody else at the same time. Letting go: a spiritual experience. Ok, but a little scary.

It seems to me that they let themselves be dissolved in the crowd, that they lose their sense of self. Powerful, but personally that's not how I envision community. There's a strong pressure to conform. In the event I attended, I was with young teenagers and  ran into polite conflicts with other adults, because of a difference of attitude: when the youth asked for permission to do this or that, I typically answered: "I don't see any harm in it, so, if that's what you feel like doing, go ahead", but the other adults typically answered: "This is all about being together; in order to benefit from the event, to get the full experience, you have to be willing to engage. We should be spending time together, doing all the same thing at the same time. That's part of the point. No, you can't do this or that, unless there's an overriding reason why you can't conform." - Most of the youth who attended had the time of their lives, but that kind of event is not for everyone.

One thought is that there might be few immediate results in evangelization, but that later in life, when they feel an indistinct yearning for something beyond themselves, they may remember that experience of being carried by a large community and feeling one with the other young Christians, and it may give them the incentive to go back to church.

I suspect that the drain from the RCC to various religious forms, most specifically Pentecostalism, will continue unabated.

A hierarchical church doesn't have the flexibility of worship and leadership style to combat nose-to-nose.

Fusty, musty masses and churches are no match for exciting, spirit-filled worship with leadership very close to the parishioners and incorporating many women.

Papal road shows will not overcome the malaise that infests so much of world-wide Catholicism.

A true reformation is needed.

And not just in Latin America:

Sea change in London Christianity

30 July 2013

Pentecostal Christians have overtaken Catholics to become the biggest group of regular churchgoers in London, a new survey has revealed.

Immigrants, particularly from Africa, are believed to be behind a 50 per cent increase in the number of people attending Sunday services at Pentecostal churches since 2005.

This compares to a rise of just one per cent in Catholic worshippers, and a six per cent decline in Anglican churchgoers, over the same period, according to The London Churches Census - which recorded congregation sizes on a single Sunday in October last year.

The study showed Pentecostal churches in the capital attracted nearly 230,000 Sunday worshippers last year compared to 198,300 attending Catholic Masses.

Pentecostal churchgoers now make up 32 per cent of Sunday worshippers in London, compared to 27 per cent for Catholics and 12 per cent attending Anglican churches according to the census.

I find Claire's comment really interesting because it looks at several facets/implications of these types of gatherings. I wonder if the age of those who participate might make a difference. At 60, I am amused when some of the younger parents chaperoning school dances rush out to the dance floor to bonding en masse with the kiddies whenever the DJ plays "Love Shack" (they do this line dance thing). But no way I want to be part of it.

However, as a teenager, I was happy to chant anti war slogans with several hundred folks who were instantly my nearest and dearest, validating my beliefs about our foreign policy in Vietnam.

I think Ann's suggestion that crowd/group behavior could yield some fruitful study is a good one. But do you think that many evangelicals/pentacostals would resist the findings? What happens at Mardi Gras and what happens at a charismatic meeting where there is speaking in tongues, they'd argue perhaps with some merit, is entirely different; one is fueled with booze and the other the Holy Spirit, so they're entirely different things. 

Jean ==

True, a charismatic group speaking in tongues and a group of people putting on a  Mardi Gras parade are extremely different,.  But it seems to me there are some important likenesses (starting with the fact that both are weird :-)

Mardi Gras "krewes" are groups of people who spend large amounts of time and money producing the Carnival parades.  Many of them are not well-to-do, and some are even on the poor side.  (No, it's not the drunks and carousers of Bourbon Street who are typical of the day.) 

So why do they do it?  Yes, some krewe members undoubtedly like to show off their means by spending a lot of money, but there seems to be a sincere impulse on the part of the krewe members to somehow commend or even bless the public, and that includes throwing hundreds of dollars worth of pretty little trinkets (small graces?)  to the crazy strangers in the streets who catch them.  Yes, sometimes ugly things happen on Mardi Gras -- with two million people interacting on the streets is that surprising?  But you don't find cats and dogs much less gorillas and chimpanzees interacting in such generous ways.  In other words, Mardi Gras seems to spring from some quite primitive but real spiritual part of our nature, so I'd call it at least a faintly spiritual occasion though not a religious one.

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