From NCR's "Word from Rome" by John Allen Jr.
I had the opportunity recently to join a group of Canadians in Rome following World Youth Day. The Canadians, part of a group called "Catholic Christian Outreach Canada," were led by Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, who was the main organizer for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
Bishop Renato Boccardo and I had been invited for a "debriefing" from Cologne with the group.
Boccardo has a long history with World Youth Day. When he worked in the Pontifical Council for Laity, he was in charge of WYD preparations. When he took over from Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Tucci as the pope's travel planner, he played a key role in the Toronto and Cologne events.
In his remarks to the Canadians, Boccardo described the heart of Pope John Paul II's vision for World Youth Day in three concepts.
Kerygma: The first purpose of the event, Boccardo said, is to come together to hear the gospel, and to reflect on what it means in one's life and circumstances. This is not just a matter of the pope's homilies, but also of the catechetical sessions that are carried out during the week.
Experience of the Church: What World Youth Day does for many Catholic youth, Boccardo said, is open them up to the breadth of what it means to be Catholic, exposing many for the first time to the reality of a global church. Among other things, Boccardo noted, this should make youth aware that their way of doing things is not the only one, and that their movements are not the only options for authentic Catholic living.
Mission: The point of World Youth Day, Boccardo stressed, is not merely to have a great experience of togetherness for a week. It's to energize people to go home and make a difference, bringing new energy to their local churches, youth groups, and other areas of their lives.
On this last point, I told the youth that World Youth Day has become the premier event for the Catholic church on the global stage, which means that it garners the attention of the world press. The question, however, that my colleagues always ask is, "What difference does it make?" Granted that hundreds of thousands of Catholic youth exhibit great passion over a week, does it change anything in the long run? Are these youth more likely to go to Mass? Do vocations to the priesthood and religious life go up? Is there evidence that these events have put a dent in runaway secularization?
These are legitimate questions, and unfortunately they're hard to answer in any quantitative fashion. To date, no one has carried out serious longitudinal studies about the impact of World Youth Day, interviewing participants before and after, following up six months later, two years later, etc., to get a handle on what happens to people who take part. It's a challenge to which one hopes a Catholic university or research body will respond.
In the meantime, I told the Canadian youth that it would be helpful if they went home and talked about what difference the experience made in their lives -- not just to reporters, but in their schools, in their workplaces, among their friends and family. Images of delirious youth greeting the pope along the banks of the Rhine will be greeted in some circles with skepticism until the church can establish that the effect "sticks."
(Emphasis mine: I'm going to do something about this! Watch out this space for the next announcement!)
WYD is an extraordinary event; an event which might just be an extraordinary memory for those who were there, if we don't bring to our homes and communities, the light of Christ!