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The real WYD? Sooner or later, someone will talk about it

· How the story has been told in the international press throughout the years ·

But Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie defined John Paul II as the champion of a Catholic Enlightenment which made the word, youth, pure again

It is certainly not the first time that a World Youth Day (WYD) elicits protests, like those in recent days in Madrid at the Puerta del Sol. And it is not even the first time that a WYD is described as a sort of “Catholic Woodstock,” as Monsignor Miguel Delgado Galindo, Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity lamented in this paper on July 30th, 2011. Something similar had already occurred in Denver in 1993 and Paris in 1997. But it was precisely on those two occasions that the meeting of young people and the Pope went beyond the confines of religious news to enter into, albeit coarsely, the front pages of “secular” news throughout the world.

The first four editions of WYD in fact, did not attract much attention in the press and were relegated to the normal – although there was little normal about them – evangelizing work of the Pope. Beginning with the meeting in Czestochowa in 1991, the lines were drawn for what would become the standard news reports of World Youth Day: the numbers in attendance, comments from pilgrims, a summary of the Pontiff’s talks and above all, the “worldly” aspect of a gathering of young people, or the “party” and “business.”

In Czestochowa, Domenico del Rio in La Repubblica wrote on August 15, the “religious junk market” is “flourishing” and “the most sold items are a phosphorescent Madonna and a bust of Christ with a clock in it.” According to this report, which seems to describe merrymaking half way between a country fair and an improvised rave party, the culminating moment is “at night,” when “the party breaks out,” “they dance, play music, put on theater shows,” “bars remain open all night,” and the city becomes, “a paradise for pick-pockets and small-time thieves.”

In successive editions, however, what seemed a loony parody of light opera took on political color. In August, 1994, at his first stop on his visit to the American continent, John Paul II was “welcomed” in Kingston, Jamaica by religious liberation movements as an “anti-Christ” who wanted to back local governments, “at the expense of the population.” In Denver, he was “welcomed” by some feminist groups gathered in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to ask that the Catholic Church “clean their own house rather than judging women responsible for their own actions and their fertility.”

On the other hand, the theme of birth control – as well as the “crises in the Church,” and the accusations of pedophilia – was one of the recurring topics of the time.

The barely concealed skepticism of Suddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel preparing for the arrival of Benedict XVI in Cologne in 2005, said that the Pope would find “a de-christianized land” and would be considered a sort of “foreigner in his homeland,” was mitigated by the tepid optimism of the daily Bild , which distributed a pin with the words, “Wir sind Papst”, or “We are the Pope.” And then there was the classic declination of WYD as a “media event” paraphrasing the expression coined in 1992 by sociologists Katz and Dayan; an interpretation which is extremely reductive for at least two reasons.

The encounters of the World Youth Days, as Francesco Paolo Casavola wrote in the Messaggero on August 18th, reconnects – albeit with much that is new – the very ancient tradition of pilgrimage, which has nothing to do with the numerous and variegated mass gatherings of the 20th century. Secondly, a fact which is too often forgotten, the WYD is not just a meeting with the Pope – although that is obviously its climax – but a long journey of often tiring pilgrimage marked by moments of catechesis and traditional Christian prayer (lauds, vespers, compline) which has one objective: to discover the meaning of one’s life through the encounter with Christ. Sooner or later, someone will talk about it.

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