Celebrating World Youth Day 2023

I can still recall waving to the skies as the helicopter carrying Pope John Paul II flew over my neighbourhood, with the Pope heading to Lake Simcoe for a brief rest amid the World Youth Day activities taking place in Toronto in 2002.

I hadn’t known much about World Youth until it came to Toronto, but I was quickly caught up in the excitement, becoming a big fan. Rarely had I seen my hometown feel quite so nice. There was a very gentle vibe in the city, with both citizens and guests extra patient and polite as we let our collective guard down and chatted with strangers in a friendly, upbeat way. The days-long event was prime-time TV. I heard many non-Catholics, including my husband, express surprise at what a beautiful event was taking place around us, and I suspect it changed more than a few hearts and minds about the Catholic Church.

Toronto has changed greatly in the 21 years since World Youth Day took place here. So has the world. We are a much more cynical, sometimes sour bunch, fueled both by legitimate challenges such as COVID and worries about the economy and the health of the planet but also by the nasty comments and conspiracy theories you can read posted on social media, often written by people hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet.

And this is why World Youth Day matters more than ever. Having had a child participate in Toronto’s event, I know the benefits for the whole family because WYD is based on encounters. In this cynical world, it is great for teens and young adults to meet others who share their faith. What results is a joyful experience that can carry them forward in their daily lives.

When I look at pictures from Portugal of the most recent gathering earlier this month, the participants seemed to be enthusiastic and engaged, including in receiving both Communion and Reconciliation. Yet when I look at social media, I find an ongoing torrent of negative comments, including calls for this tradition of almost 40 years to be cancelled.

And that prompts one question: Why? I have seen everything from criticisms about how participants were dressed, even though August is the warmest month in Portugal, to a priest who served as a DJ being criticized as inappropriate, even though he was providing entertainment for young people engaged in a days-long event. This mother thinks the kids deserved some fun time, too. Perhaps one of the most controversial issues this WYD was time dedicated to interreligious dialogue. Those of us in the greater Toronto area know we live in one of the most diverse locations in the world. If we truly are to love our neighbour, learning a little bit about other religions and religious rituals can only help that goal. And one of the most powerful ways to reflect on one’s faith is to see it in light of other traditions.  It helps us understand why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe.

I wonder whether some of the armchair critics actually spoke with participants to learn more about what they did while in Portugal and what they have learned. Participation in World Youth Day is sometimes mistakenly seen as a frivolous vacation, but it is anything but. It can mean sleeping on floors, joining long lines to use the washroom, and sometimes – as happened to thousands of pilgrims in Toronto – waiting in the pouring rain. I can still see my son’s sodden sleeping bag left out on our back deck to dry after a rainy wait for Mass. It took ages!

There is fundraising involved to travel to WYD, and participants are giving up key summer job hours to take part. World Youth Day isn’t a frivolous vacation but a chance for those fortunate enough to attend to test-drive their faith in an adult way, leaving home and family behind for a few days and travelling to another place, often very far away, to engage in their faith, to celebrate as a community and, heaven forbid, to have a little bit of fun.

To me, World Youth Day 2023 was a success. Our temptation these days to politicize everything is unfortunate because, to this viewer, WYD was a joyful and fruitful celebration, reminding us that the Church has a strong future in those who participated. How do we take issue with that?

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