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Pope ‘on message’ with youth

Toronto, Canada

An ailing but resilient Pope John Paul II arrived in Canada July 23 for his eighth World Youth Day, facing challenges that rippled out around him like waves on Toronto’s Lake Ontario.

Despite the concerns, the pope has stayed relentlessly on message, urging the 250,000 young people from 172 countries gathered here to be beacons of Christian hope in the post-Sept. 11 world.

The first challenge was one that John Paul brought with him -- his own declining health, which initially threatened to dominate news coverage. When the pope landed in Toronto, however, he walked under his own power down the 27 steps from his Alitalia flight rather than being moved by a lift on the other side of the plane, as has lately been the norm. The unexpected gesture largely dispelled speculation that he might collapse under the strain of the journey.

Harder to shake off, however, was concern about the health of World Youth Day itself. As the event opened, attendance projections were in Dow Jones-style free fall. Months ago organizers had anticipated 750,000, but as registrations failed to materialize, estimates were revised to 500,000, then 250,000 -- a reflection, they said, of Canada’s distance from Catholic population centers, combined with post-Sept. 11 malaise. Others wonder, however, if some of the charm of “Wojtyla’s Woodstock,” as the massive World Youth Day festivals have been dubbed, is wearing off.

At the same time, an enormous crowd is expected for the July 28 concluding Mass. As NCR went to press, organizers said that TV images July 23 of an energized John Paul had produced a last-minute rush of registrations.

A related worry was a cash shortfall. Each delegate paid $158 for registration, and the budget was built on the expectation of 350,000 registrations, so if the actual number is 250,000, that would mean a $15.8 million deficit. Any deficit will have to be paid off by the Canadian bishops’ conference.

John Paul might also be forgiven a bit of nervousness about the Catholic church he finds in Canada. A National Post poll just before he arrived found that 82 percent of Canadian Catholics want married priests, and 80 percent women priests. To be sure, the easy-going liberalism of Canadian Catholicism is less feisty than its German or American counterparts, but no less resistant to Roman diktat.

Underscoring that point, a group of reform-minded Catholics staged a series of parallel events during World Youth Day at a nearby Anglican parish.

Given the obvious energy and good humor of the swarms of young people moving up and down the streets of Toronto, however, World Youth Day organizers seemed upbeat about how things are going.

“The story of World Youth Day is not to break records. ... It’s a story about the formation of a generation, transformation of culture, about the bringing of the message of peace and joy,” said Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, chief organizer.

World Youth Day, an international festival held every two years since 1986, has become the defining mega-event of the Wojtyla papacy. Supporters hail John Paul’s ability to galvanize youth as one of the most original aspects of his papacy, a modern revitalization of the ancient Christian tradition of pilgrimage. Detractors, however, sometimes deride the pep rally style of the event as a form of papal idolatry.

Though the highlight of the week will be an all-night starlit prayer vigil on Saturday, July 27, leading to the papal Mass the next morning, the 2002 edition of World Youth Day encompasses a week-long series of events.

During the mornings July 24-27, participants are taking part in a series of catechetical sessions organized into 24 language groups, held in churches across Toronto. A total of 262 bishops, including 30 cardinals, are making presentations.

In the afternoons, the youth can choose from among a wide variety of experiences, including seminars, time together in cafés, a film festival and direct service projects. They can also go to confession in stations set up on the bank of the lake.

In the run-up to this year’s event, Canadian youth took part in a pilgrimage across the country bearing a 12-foot, 70-pound cross, which they received from the Italians who hosted World Youth Day in 2000.

“If some say that the youth of Quebec no longer have faith, what we saw and lived for over a week definitely goes against the tide,” said Sebastien Lacroix, one of the youth who took part in the march.

At his Sunday Angelus address from Castel Gandolfo before leaving for Canada, the pope said that the “tragic events of Sept. 11” cast a dark shadow over the world, and Catholic youth are called to dispel that darkness.

In an interview with NCR, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said he believes the pope’s appeal is working.

“If the world is in the hands of these young people, they will do a much better job than the older generation. They are proud of their faith, they are enthused, they find being with each other across language and cultural and racial groups a source of energy,” Gregory said. “They’re wonderful.”

On July 29, John Paul is to leave Canada for 24 hours in Guatemala City, then two days in Mexico City. In both places he will canonize or beatify indigenous laypersons.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002