World Youth Day this year is in Madrid, August 16-21, and almost 30,000 young people from the United States alone will participate. Thousands others can join the virtual World Youth Day on Facebook.
I have affection for World Youth Day because I was on the leadership group that launched the event in 1993 in Denver. Pope John Paul II founded World Youth Day in 1985 as a biennial event starting in Rome, with subsequent meetings in Buenos Aires; Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and Czestochowa, Poland. When the event did not catch on worldwide, Vatican organizers asked the U.S. bishops to host it in America. They thought that U.S. media might give it the profile it needed.
Were they ever right!
This was a new experience for the church in the United States. Bishops met a from-the-ground-up movement. Instead of leaders urging youth to participate, they found youth all but demanding to go. Many in the hierarchy were taken aback. What the youth sought was unusual and unprecedented. Some lay leaders questioned bringing raging hormones together and said we were looking for trouble. Fortunately, the U.S. bishops decided to take the risk.
In Europe the event had been designed for young adults; minors were discouraged from attending. The U.S. bishops, who from experience with Catholic schools and religious education programs recognized potential in this group, successfully argued for lowering the minimum age for attendees from 18 to 16, and added the component of youth leaders to head delegations.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was asked to organize the three-day event and initially guesstimated about 60,000 youth would be interested. In a few months, local organizers presented the bishops with a budget problem. About 120,000 young people had registered for the event in the first few months alone.
The thousands of participants changed the bishops' view of young people. Until then, the bishops had seen youth as the church of tomorrow. After they met them together, they began to refer to them as the church of today. Idealism en masse offered hope. The young people brought out the best in one another and in the adults privileged to be with them.
Before the event, media reported the trite but seemingly eternal story of a church divided. But, when media got to Denver, that story wasn't there. Graying editors at home demanded to know what youth thought about birth control and abortion. Some reporters dutifully interviewed people along these lines. The youth were incredulous. We're not talking about things like that, youth replied. One exasperated co-ed told a reporter, "Get a life!"
Another reporter for a newsweekly advised his editor that the youth weren't talking about his issues. In fact, they weren't fighting with the church at all.
When World Youth Day concluded, the Washington Post reported that it was like Woodstock, with all of the good and none of the bad of the 1969 rock festival.
Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, just months before World Youth Day was to be in Germany. Youth from around the globe cheered when the German pope said he would continue the world meeting and see them in Cologne.
World Youth Day brings youth and the pope together. There is no other world leader or even national leader who has made such an outreach. The pope challenges youth, before politics, church or otherwise, can jade them. He calls them to deepen their relationship with Jesus, recognize that they are in a family comprised of a mix of languages, nations, color and even religious beliefs. World Youth Day helps them realize they have a personal relationship with Jesus at the same time it expands their concept of community beyond a coterie of friends, or even of the parish. It can be life-changing and, with its emphasis on peace and world community, world-changing as well.