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Hopeful Youth Day connections


NCR’s little corner of Roman real estate overlooks a bridge spanning the Tiber River near the Vatican, and last week it was a prime observation post for watching the more than 2 million young people who cascaded through the city for World Youth Day. As I leaned out my office window, throngs of young pilgrims waved, cheered and displayed their banners. Once a group stood on the street two floors below and serenaded me in what I think was Portuguese, delighted with my uncomprehending grin.

The “Papa-Boys,” as the local press tagged them, dazzled jaded Roman observers with their zest for Catholicism. They made more than 60,000 confessions (15,000 per day at the Circus Maximus, using 2,000 priests, in 32 languages), attended catechism sessions and hiked up to nine miles in the blazing sun for Mass with the pope. It was, according to Mayor Francesco Rutelli, the greatest gathering of people ever in this city, and Rome has seen a few gatherings in its time.

Not everyone was so thrilled. Some critics saw the rallies here as a form of papal idolatry; others noted the logistical and financial support given by groups such as Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation, and whispered about hidden agendas.

My experience, however, led my thoughts in a different direction. World Youth Day gave me a new appreciation of this pope and the church he leads.

I discovered that John Paul’s appeal to youth is a not a matter of show; he gives real focus and fortitude to their innate moral sense. I spoke with dozens of participants, usually off the record and away from their sponsors, who believed contact with the pope would make them better friends, better lovers, better citizens, better people.

These young people know the church has problems, that Karol Wojtyla is a closed book on many issues. What impresses them is his challenge to “put on Christ” in a world desperate for holiness and sacrifice; that ideal is John Paul’s gift to youth.

Second, the gathering underscored Catholicism’s unique potential to be a moral force in the new world that globalization has created. I sat in the World Youth Forum, which brought together two young people from each of the 157 nations represented in Rome, and listened as a young woman from the Sudan describe the ravages of the civil war (1.3 million dead and 4 million refugees in the last two decades). A young man from the Reunion Islands spoke of the necessity of blending faith with political action in the face of his country’s stunning poverty. A young man from South Africa discussed struggling to live an ethic of compassion in a society where 1,200 people every day become HIV positive. It became clear to participants that their problems are interconnected, and that solutions must be systemic.

I found myself thinking: What other institution on the planet could provide a platform for this kind of social analysis across boundaries of geography, language and culture? What other institution could bring people together from such diverse situations and give them a shared moral and spiritual vocabulary? That’s not to say Catholicism does these things perfectly or consistently, merely that it has a unique capacity to do them at all.

The event would have been impossible without scores of adult sponsors and staff, including a few brave souls I met from the U.S. bishops’ conference who coordinated the participation of 17,000 to 20,000 American youth. One is a former administrator for NASA, and I couldn’t help thinking the link was appropriate; the logistics for World Youth Day surely rivaled a shuttle launch. It is one of the more appealing aspects of Catholicism that it can elicit such enormous dedication for the cause of youth.

Admittedly, few of the church’s problems were solved by World Youth Day. Some may actually be worse; I saw an alarming number of young Catholics marching through the streets of Rome, for example, aligned with militant new movements eager to do battle with the world rather than to work with it in partnership. Other young people had a superficial experience that will melt away as soon as they return to parishes, schools and families that offer no follow-up. Many just came here for a good time and found it (one newspaper irreverently predicted a boom of Italian “Jubilee babies” nine months from now among 20-somethings who made the trip).

The bottom line, however, is that hundreds of thousands of young people, dedicated to building God’s reign, made connections here. From such encounters comes hope; it is Catholicism at its best.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000