Invoking a New Pentecost

The young people will spend the days of Aug. 16-21 in prayer and celebration, and Pope Benedict XVI will journey to Spain to be with them. The theme for the gathering is “Planted and Built Up in Jesus Christ, Firm in the Faith.” There has been a great deal of discussion about the 2011 site of this year’s World Youth Day, Madrid, but the question can still be asked: What is World Youth Day? 

A New Pentecost 

Put simply, World Youth Day is an annual celebration for young people first conceived by Pope John Paul II in 1984. A reflection of the universality of the Church, WYD has brought young people from every corner of the globe together to spend several intense days of prayer, song and the sacraments. It encourages them to grow in their relationship with Christ, deepen their prayer life, possibly discern their vocation and take their love for the Church back home with them. As Pope Benedict XVI declared in July 2007, WYD seeks to invoke “a new Pentecost upon the world.” 

When and where is it held? 

WYD is held every year, but is celebrated alternately on diocesan and international levels. There have, so far, been 10 International World Youth Days: Argentina (1987), Spain (1989), Poland (1991), the United States (1993), Philippines (1995), France (1997), Italy (2000, the Jubilee Year), Canada (2002), Germany (2005) and Australia (2008). 

When did WYD begin? 

The tradition of WYD began on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1984, when Pope John Paul II spoke to some 300,000 young people who had come to Rome to help celebrate the end of the Holy Year of the Redemption. He declared: “Who has claimed that the young people of today have lost the sense of courage? … Well, I say that already the experience of these days — the great and consoling experience of compassion, of brotherhood, and courage in the open profession of faith — is in itself a reply to the questions and doubts!” 

Soon after, the pope issued an apostolic letter to the youth of the world, and on Dec. 20, 1985, he officially instituted World Youth Day, declaring that the first celebration would be held the following year. The first World Youth Day was held in Rome and dioceses across the Church under the theme, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15). 

The pope then traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he greeted youth on April 11-12, 1987, in the second WYD and the first international WYD. It was held under the theme, “We ourselves have known and put our faith in God’s love towards ourselves” (1 Jn 4:16). 

Who attends WYD? 

One of the common misconceptions about WYD is who is actually invited. While the word youth usually brings to mind the image of kids or teenagers, the word for WYD means young men and women between the ages of 16 and 35. They are accompanied by adults from their own dioceses and countries, including many cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, nuns and men religious, as well as literally thousands of parents who serve as chaperones. The young pilgrims usually attend as part of a parish or diocesan group. Many of the ecclesial movements in the Church — such as Focolare, Communion and Liberation and others — also attend in large numbers. Remarkably, dioceses and parishes do not pay the travel expenses for the young people. Instead, individuals save up for as long as several years or parents make the sacrifice to pay for them to go (although fundraising, generally involving the young people who want to go, is often held). Anyone, of course, can attend WYD by registering. Pope Benedict was the first official person to register, exactly one year to the day from the planned WYD in Madrid, and received the official registration number of “1.” 

What takes place at a World Youth Day? 

World Youth Day is more than one day. For the young people and the adults who go with them, WYD is a pilgrimage that brings together Catholics (and even non-Catholics) from dozens of countries for a week of Masses, prayer, concerts, song, catechesis, penance and fellowship. 

Young people throughout the week typically attend sessions of catechesis and spiritual counsel and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation from bishops and priests. They also attend prayer vigils, get to know people from other countries, forge lifelong friendships and sometimes even meet their future spouse or answer definitively Christ’s call to the priesthood or religious life. 

The list of events and liturgies, of course, barely describes the intense, joyous and prayerful atmosphere during which hundreds of thousands of young people share their faith and love for Christ and His Church. Many pilgrims traditionally stay up throughout the night in prayer before the final Mass. 

All of the week’s events are designed to culminate with the arrival of the pope, who celebrates a vigil and a final Mass with the pilgrims. The pope also meets young people in impromptu sessions. In Cologne, Germany, young people sailed with the pope for a tour of the Rhine, while in Sydney the pope had breakfast with a group of young people from different regions and cultures. 

The enduring images of WYD are from these events: a sea of joy-filled young people waving the flags of the world sharing in the Eucharist and hearing the words of the pope. Australians still remember the WYD in 2008, when 500,000 people gathered in Royal Randwick Racecourse for the papal Mass. It was the largest event in the history of Australia, but what amazed the people of Sydney was that crime plummeted that week despite the multitude of young people wandering the streets and filling the parks. Similar stories and reports have come out of every WYD. TCA  

What can I do to support WYD? (sidebar) 

There are many ways to support WYD. You can make a donation to the parish or diocese where you live to help sponsor the travel of young people. You might also assist with fundraising, encourage kids you know to learn more about it and even volunteer to serve as a chaperone for the next international WYD that will be held from July 8-13, 2013, in Brazil. 

The Cross and the Icon (sidebar) 

The World Youth Day cross, a tall wooden cross, was first given to young people in 1984 by Pope John Paul II with the command to “carry it throughout the world as a symbol of Christ’s love for humanity, and announce to everyone that only in the death and resurrection of Christ can we find salvation and redemption.” Since then, it has been carried to every WYD and is one of the most important symbols of the annual event. It is accompanied by an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was entrusted to youths on Palm Sunday in Rome, 2003, by Pope John Paul. He said, “It will be a sign of Mary’s motherly presence close to young people who are called, like the apostle John, to welcome her into their lives.”

Matthew E. Bunson is the general editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and editor of The Catholic Answer magazine.