Nothing but costs and protests at World Youth Day

The Roman Catholic Church is having its World Youth Day in Madrid, an event geared toward young people and held in celebration of the Catholic faith. These events are held locally every year and internationally every two to three years. They attract hundreds of thousands of youth from all over the globe and they’ve been credited with helping young people get more involved in the church. This marks the world’s largest gathering of young people. This year is no exception. As many as 1.5 million people are expected for Saturday’s vigil and Sunday’s Papal Mass outside the city.

So this is a major event and it’s interesting to see how reporters are covering it. I am pretty sure that there was a contest to see how many journalists could get the word “lavish” into the lede. Here’s Agence France-Presse:

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered for a giant open-air mass in the heart of Madrid on Tuesday, launching a lavish six-day youth party for Pope Benedict XVI.

Party for Benedict? I don’t think that’s how the church would describe it. And what makes the event lavish, exactly? It’s unclear. What happened to show, don’t tell?

Here’s the angle the New York Times chose for their story on the event, with the headline “Catholic Clergy Protest Pope’s Visit, and Its Price Tag“:

MADRID — The Rev. Eubilio Rodríguez’s church is a prefabricated building in an area of this city hard hit by Spain’s economic crisis. In front of the altar are a few scraggly potted plants. Behind it, some plastic chairs.

To the Rev. Eubilio Rodríguez, the trip’s cost is “scandalous.”

How, he asks, can the Roman Catholic Church be getting ready for a lavish $72 million celebration in this city — some of it paid for with tax dollars — when Spain is in the midst of an austerity drive, the unemployment rate for young people is 40 percent and his parishioners are losing their homes to foreclosure every day?

“It is scandalous, the price,” he said. “It is shameful. It discredits the church.”

Father Rodríguez, 67, is among the 120 clergymen working among the poor here who have signed a lengthy petition deploring the pope’s visit this week on many grounds — from its cost to what they see as an inappropriate melding of church and state.

Subtle! The AFP story says most of the costs are covered by the pilgrims themselves. Here we’re told that “some” will be paid for through taxpayer dollars. Later we learn that government officials and church officials say that businesses came up with $23 million to pay for various events, pilgrims will pay $44 million themselves and donations will cover the rest. Pilgrims are allowed to sleep in public buildings such as schools and businesses will get tax breaks for their contributions. Critics say they’re worried about hidden costs such as the stress on health care systems and subsidized use of public transportation.

I don’t know if these costs are just the typical cost you might expect for such a large gathering of people or if they reflect frugality or spendthriftiness. Many more details are needed. Just by way of comparison, the Democratic National Committee spent $53 million on the 2008 Denver convention. That’s just what the committee spent, so I’m unsure about other costs such as the ones mentioned above. The largest event had fewer than 100,000 people at Invesco field. So I’m not sure what the $72 million figure is supposed to tell us, exactly.

And what about some context on these 120 clergymen? I know that there are about 20,000 priests alone in Spain. I’m unsure how many total clergy there are. Either way, we’re talking about a fraction of a percent of clergy. It’s got to be nice for them to receive such prominent coverage! Clearly this is the most important angle the media are focusing on. We are told that the priests, will join “dozens of left-leaning groups demanding a secular state and young people who occupied many of Spain’s main squares for months to protest the government’s handling of the economy” in a major protest march on Wednesday.

From the perspective of the New York Times, this World Youth Day is nothing more than a financial racket for the Catholic Church:

Spain is less solidly Catholic than it once was. A government survey released in July found that 71.7 percent of Spaniards declared themselves Catholics, compared with 82.1 percent in 2001. Of those, 13 percent attend Mass on Sundays, compared with 19 percent 10 years ago.

But the church is eager to keep a spiritual hold on this country, where people can still check a box diverting up to seven-tenths of a percent of their taxes to the church.

Now, maybe “the church is eager” to see Catholics return to the church in Spain for no more reason than that they might get a fraction of a percent from people’s taxes. But if you’re going to level such an incendiary charge, after making the protests from left-leaning anti-clerical groups, unemployed youth and a small fraction of Catholic clergy the angle you use to cover World Youth Day, I have a couple of suggestions. The first would be to substantiate the charge with much more than innuendo and the second would be to allow the church to respond. Otherwise, it just comes off like a crusade against the church. And that’s the last thing the Times needs when it comes to covering Catholics.

As for other reporters, if you’re looking for a new angle that doesn’t include the words “lavish” or “protests,” here’s one that might be worth checking out.

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  • Julia

    This one jumped out at me on my MSNBC home page – Associated Press is focused on a Mexican organic chemistry student who may have been planning to gas some anti-Pope demonstrators, but no chemicals were found.

    Here’s the caption on a photo of thousands of pilgrims peacefully waiting for an outdoor Mass to start.

    Pilgrims wait near Cibeles square in Madrid on August 16, 2011 before a giant open-air mass, launching a six-day youth party for Pope Benedict XVI.

    A party for the Pope? You have to get all the way to the bottom of the piece to find out that these World Youth Day
    events are a regular occurance every three years or so. I’ve yet to see any regular press mention that they were started in the 1980s by John Paul II and are not something new. Not much about why millions of kids are gathering in Madrid, other than to see the Pope. And the conniving Pope appears to be in Madrid for political and sneaky reasons.

    In the economic bust, he may be hoping to lure back some of his straying flock.

    And the AP doesn’t use “lavish”, but words that convey the same meaning:

    But many Spaniards take issue with the hoopla and hefty cost.

    Missing in all this is the fact that this event has been planned years in advance. The political and economic situation are coincidental and not the reason for the event.

    Here’s the official site for the Madrid event.

    And here’s the official site for the Sydney event 3 years ago.

    There have also been WYDs in Denver, Toronto, Rome and the next one will be in Rio.

  • Will

    “Many” Spaniards… on Wikipedia editing pages these would be dismissed as “weasel words”.
    The Guardian also covered ( the dispensation angle. But the reference to special faculties put “special” in scare quotes (aren’t those really “sneer quotes”?), and the head has the Pope (not the Archbishop… it’s that TheVatican hive mind again) “dangling” absolution.
    The reporters also make the assertion that plenary indulgences “used to be sold by priests”. Comments? (It conjures up visions of indulgence vending machines).

  • Will

    UPI ( correctly gives the Archbishop as the authority (and links it with what are said to be his recent statements), but also puts “special” in quotes. What gives?

  • Mollie

    Will, Pope Leo X funded the rebuilding of St. Peter’s via indulgences and Johann Tetzel’s aggressive marketing of them played a key role in the Lutheran Reformation, obviously. I think indulgences can be given for alms to this day and I seem to recall some GetReligion coverage of stories about that from a couple of years ago.

    But wow is that Guardian headline bad! Dangling?? Yikes.

  • Mollie


    Ah — I see you were talking about the authority issue, as opposed to the indulgences themselves.

  • Julia

    WOW I couldn’t believe this from that Guardian article:

    At a time when church attendances in Europe are dipping Lombardi denied the deal on abortion had been dreamed up to attract waverers back to the church. “With so many young people attending there may be those who have had problems of this kind and it makes sense to reach out to them.”

    The driving force behind the deal is the archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, who persuaded the Vatican to offer women who had had abortions access to “the fruits of divine grace that will open the doors to a new life”.

    The deal? And the article implies the Vatican doesn’t normally forgive the sin of having an abortion. No, the Madrid situation is simplifying the process.

    Here’s what a canon lawyer says about the usual situation – from the Lifesite blog that Millie linked.

    Not all priests have the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion with its attendant automatic excommunication. If a person goes to Confession and confesses abortion, and the priest does not have the faculty to absolve it, he will request the person come back a few days later. In the meantime, he will notify the bishop and ask for the faculty to absolve the sin and lift the excommunication. When the person comes back, then the confession is completed and absolution is given.
    Many dioceses (such as the one where I work) have granted all priests in the diocese this faculty.

    SEE the comments box

  • Will

    Well, giving alms is a “good work” that might well have an indulgence attached to it. But that is a far cry from ecclesiastical slot machines. And if any local priest could “sell” them, how did Chaucer’s (and Lindsay’s of the Mount, and the FOUR PP one) pardoner make a living?

    The documents are readily available online. From the Norms for Indulgences:
    “A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, prompted by a spirit of faith, devote themselves or their goods in compassionate service to their brothers and sisters in need….. But this indulgence is not attached to all works of charity. It is attached only to those works done “in compassionate service to their brothers and sisters in need,” e.g., persons who are in need of food or clothing for the body or in need of instruction or comfort for their spirits.”

  • Kate

    I recall that the Australian coverage of WYD in Sydney was very similar in its obsession with the cost of the events and the political impacts etc. I notice that Benedict doesn’t get the ‘rock star’ comparison the way JPII used to at every WYD.

  • Dave G.

    I’m not sure what the $72 million figure is supposed to tell us, exactly.

    Oh yes you are. You know exactly what it is supposed to ‘tell’ us. Just like what the purpose of focusing on that angle to the story is supposed to ‘tell’ us. I know what it is supposed to tell us, and I’m sure I’m not the smartest person reading it. Not trying to be flippant, just saying.

  • Julia

    From the New York Times article to which Mollie linked.

    On Friday evening, rare works of 16th- and 17th-century art depicting the stations of the cross will be carried through the streets beginning at 8 p.m.

    These are not works of art depicting stations of the cross. They are actually items made to be used in performing the stations of the cross, not to decorate somebody’s wall or to be collected in a museum. They are being used for their original purpose.

    NYT reporters should acquaint themselves with the quaint Catholic tendency to process by reporting on the annual St Joseph’s Day processions with religious “art work” that occur in their own backyard all over the NYC area every year. Here’s one on Staten Island.

    The NYT reporters could also observe some Catholics processing across the Brooklyn Bridge in a “Way of the Cross” AKA “Stations of the Cross” with a few religious items that might also be “works of art”.

  • Martha

    Mollie, you don’t have to pay for indulgences anymore – there’s a heap of indulgenced prayers that you can say in any church you like, or the “Urbi et Orbi” Easter and Christmas blessings which have indulgences attached.

    Anyway, if they’re looking for a different angle, did none of them mention the 103 (104 next month) year old enclosed nun who’s going as well?

  • Martha

    Speaking of the story about the expense of the visit, I wonder if anyone at the “New York Times” is familiar with the last time someone said it was a waste of money that should have been given to the poor, which evoked the rejoinder from Christ that “The poor you will have with you always”?

  • Jerry

    It’s a financial angle rather than religious one, but did any media outlet discuss the expected spending by people who attend that event? Or are is all the reporting equally bad about that aspect?

  • Bill

    If this were the Olympics, the World Cup, or a rock concert, wouldn’t the financial focus be on how much the event would boost the local economy?

  • Bill P.

    Last night on Facebook I posted this, and will repeat it here:

    I don’t know what’s more enjoyable. Watching hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world come together to gleefully celebrate their faith, or reading the scowling reports from many in the secular media.

  • Julia

    The Italian newspaper La Stampa is also observing how the world secular press is covering WYD in Madrid.

    World Youth Day and the Media

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Look on the bright side: as long as The New York Times writes about the Catholic Church, GetReligion will have plenty of posts.

    Like other, I remember past WYD events when the main topic was how all those kids like John Paul, but didn’t really believe the Catholic Faith. Here’s the notes hit by the Times during the 2008 Sydney WYD. It doesn’t play the “kids don’t really believe” theme, so maybe I’m thinking of Denver WYD in 1993. Sorry I can’t find anything online that far back (at least with the links working).

    Myself, I think the Times “gets” Catholicism, at least enough to not like us too much.

  • MJBubba

    Speak with any urban visitors bureau and ask if they would be fired up if they could attract a five-day event for 1.5 million people for an investment of $48 per head. I think they would be interested at twice the price.

    Both partial and plenary indulgences are available from the Church of Rome in relation to Catholic World Youth Day:

  • tioedong

    The BBC headline today is that the Spanish police confiscated the hard drive from a Mexican kid who talked about spraying the protesters.
    No, he didn’t have any chemicals with him but never mind, he “made the threat” on the internet (or maybe just joked about it)…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The NY Times would normally be huffing and puffing to get a huge event like World Youth Day for NY–except if that event were World Youth Day. Egad! All those Catholic young people praying and acting civilized instead of looting and burning. It would be almost as terrifying as having millions of evangelicals daring to get involved in the American political process.

  • Dan

    What strikes me is the complete disinterest in the content of the event. What might Pope Benedict be planning to say to the youth? What themes will he be developing? What is his goal? Why do so many young people want to hear him, and what is the sociological profile of these young people?

    As reported by the secular press, it as though 1.5 million people were descending on Madrid for no discernible reason other than to hold a pep rally for the Pope. No wonder then that the focus is on the nuisance and the cost. For those who lack any interest in, or ability to understand, what the event is about, it must indeed seem like nothing more than a money-wasting nuisance.

  • Peggy R

    Lots of good comments. It is interesting that, as Dan says, the purpose of the event or its content are ignored by the media. And, as others have noted, such an event with over 1M people attending would normally be considered an economic boom to a city. Julia made lots of great observations I must say, too!

    As far as the complaining priests are concerned, do they not concern themselves with saving souls? Where does this rank in their priorities? Think how many souls may need healing among the visitors, and locals who may be inspired by these events. And the priests further have not considered that these visitors, who apparently have some means to make the trip, could be prevailed upon to practice Christian charity and contribute to said priests’ causes for the poor. Yes, we will always have the poor with us, but not the Holy Father and the youth of the world to spread the gospel and renew the faith.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Peggy R— Many activists-even priests- are frequently involved in activism for the sake of the activism itself. And the media obliges by putting their activism front and center.

  • Peggy R

    Deacon John,

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Before this post drops off the front page, I’d like to add to the links:

    The New York Times has a decent follow-up article, with an admission that WYD probably had a positive financial impact (duh!), although they kept to event organizers “insisting” that costs were covered by registration fees and corporate sponsors. Considering the source, it was a decent article, even including a winsome detail: the next WYD will be in Brazil, so the pope’s comments at the Mass were in Portuguese.

    A nice photo gallery from The Washington Post, but one of the captions is great:

    Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead a crucifixion ceremony at Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid.

    I finally got an estimate of fiscal impact of WYD: $215 million, according to the CS Monitor, which headlined the protests, but began the article with the pope’s comments about a “profits-at-all-costs mentality”.

    Lots of interesting articles here.

    I will say this: reading a few of the comments at the mainstream newspaper site made me grateful (again) for GR.