World Youth Day (WYD) is so much more than an international get-together with the pope. Too often, global experiences of faith get overlooked or underestimated; other times, since these gatherings have taken place now for four decades, they are simply taken for granted within the Church. But such oversight would be a missed opportunity for everyone in the Church and around the world.
Why should we care? Three simple words: World. Youth. Day.
Let me explain:
The first reason is that WYD is truly meant for the whole world. While young adults heading to Krakow in July are the primary protagonists of this particular international gathering, the message of WYD applies to everyone – everywhere.
In fact, thanks in part to the growing accessibility of technology and social media, this pilgrimage is not limited to those who have the means to travel overseas. There are millions of young adult Catholics in the United States who can engage in WYD – through local stateside events in their parish, campus, or diocese, as well as through social media and digital communications.
The U.S. bishops and pilgrim leaders in Krakow will be engaging directly with stateside and digital pilgrims this year so that those at home in the United States are as much a part of the pilgrimage as those who boarded a plane bound for Poland.
No one is excluded – and that message is exactly what WYD offers the rest of the world. One of the frustrations many people experience during these international displays of faith is feeling left out, or feeling like they don’t matter. WYD is a chance for pilgrims to share in real time on social media a message of mercy and love that’s available to all. This message is meant not just for Catholics, Christians, or Krakow pilgrims; it is meant for the world.
There are many times when I get asked about “the kids” at WYD, and often, this feels like a dismissal – that this global experience is somehow just a “giant youth rally” not needing to be taken seriously. Such thinking is exactly why Pope St. John Paul II established the practice of WYDs: to remind the world that a gathering of young people is essential to the vibrancy of the Church and the transformation of the entire planet.
Even more, there is a significant misconception about WHO this gathering is intended for. The name alone can be misleading. The “youth” in the WYD title is actually mistranslated in English. The target audiences for these international pilgrimages are “young adults.” That is, those in their late teens, twenties, and into their thirties. In 2016, the majority of U.S. pilgrims range from ages 18 to 30, and most diocesan groups are taking young men and women in their 20s and 30s, single and married. In other words, they aren’t “kids.”
This news is actually incredibly refreshing, considering that young adults are one of the most disconnected groups of people from the Catholic Church and the practice of the faith. Around the United States, studies show that only 17% of millennial Catholics attend church weekly, and over one-third of young millennials have no religious affiliation whatsoever.
To know that thousands of young adults from the U.S. are going to Krakow, and even more are engaging stateside or digitally, is one of the most important things that Catholics can celebrate this month. Let’s work to create local communities open to their enthusiasm so that returning pilgrims can engage in the life of the Church.
It can be easy to dismiss WYD as a “Catholic Woodstock” – a one-time festival over the course of a few days when the pope and millions of young people gather together in a large open field to pray and talk about God. But again, there is so much more.
WYD is not a “day” at all – but a pilgrimage. It includes months or years of spiritual and practical preparation, leading into years of follow-up work: putting into practice the message of WYD and the lessons learned along the way. One could compare this experience to a mountaintop journey. The events in Krakow or stateside are just the peak. And mountains are more than their highest summits.
Too often, especially in the twenty-first century, we jump from one major task to the next, hardly stopping to slow down. Sometimes WYD is reduced to another task or event in a long line of trips, events, or papal visits. Many WYD pilgrims know that the journey is so much more than that. For some, WYD inspired them to their life’s calling: to marriage, to religious life or to the priesthood, to their careers, or to simply being an active adult Catholic. WYD is a catalyst for great things yet to come. This is just one reason why I encourage people to pay attention to WYD and what might emerge from the pilgrims who return home, and who will rise to the occasion.
In a world torn apart by violence, polarization, and fear, let us heed the value of a lifelong pilgrimage: a process of accompaniment that requires time, patience, compassionate listening, and understanding – things often lacking in our world today.
It can be tempting to excuse ourselves from caring about or thinking about WYD, dismissing it for one reason or another. Yet this is a moment of grace for everyone – from the pilgrims to the rest of the world. For one week, the Church turns its attention to this special encounter. Let’s not let this moment pass us by or excuse ourselves from paying attention.
The world, especially in uncertain times and the face of tragedy and unrest, is in need of the graces that can come from WYD. It is meant for the world. It can be a mountaintop of the Catholic young adult experience. Let us pray that the end results can help heal, transform, and bring mercy and compassion into a world torn apart and hurting.
To learn more about World Youth Day, please click here.
*This post was originally published for our World Youth Day series on July 20, 2016
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