World Youth Day Syndrome

Pope John Paul II greets the World Youth Day crowd in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1992. An estimated 1.5 million people from 80 countries attended the third international World Youth Day. (CNS file photo) (July 10, 2013) See WYD-POPES July 10, 2013.

So, another World Youth Day has come and gone. This global gathering of Catholic “yutes” (let him who has an ear hear) originated by Pope John Paul II in 1985, has become a staple of post-Vatican II life for many in the Church. The Church has been holding mass outdoor events since the early twentieth century at the latest, and so WYD is nothing new in that regard. But making the youth the focus of these large, mass events was the novelty JPII introduced, and this is probably why it has attracted (and still attracts) much attention from the non-Catholic world, probably part of its rationale in the first place. There is strength in numbers and this is one way the Church can announce to the world its vitality.

As you may have heard, there have been complaints about this year’s celebrations, ones that are not new. The Eucharistic host, in which our Lord is present, was apparently housed in plastic containers that do not at all look like fit vessels for the panis angelicus. Social media has ensured that complaints about this, and reactions to such complaints, have made the rounds in the online Catholic world.

I do not doubt that many have been edified in their faith by attending these events. But the problem is that they don’t seem to do much for the faith of young people in the long run, from what I can tell. More than that, they have become occasions for the type of abuses listed in the articles referenced above, abuses that many have warned about, including by the former Pope Benedict XVI. I don’t think this is an accident. These events are patterned after large outdoor events like rock concerts, and their own very secular rituals. It is not surprising that these types of abuses happen, given that the mass is not a necessary feature of such events and given the amount of time and planning that must go into accommodating a million or so people, the mass gets short shrift. If the organizers can’t put on WYD without these types of things happening, then it seems logical that they should not put them on at all. Or at least not in their current form.

Such considerations are not apparent to the defenders of WYD however. Yours truly has participated in this online confab, for reasons I am not sure of. I left comments on an article at the The Pillar‘s website, and the reaction to my comments was quite strong. Virtually no one wanted to address the issue but mostly ignored my criticisms, insisting that WYD was simply too important to discontinue.

Usually these kind of discussions get nowhere, and this one was no exception. The thing that always gets me with these kind of discussions is not the actual defense of things like World Youth Day, but the way their defenders make them. I should be clear, I am not really hostile to WYD. It is not something I have any interest in, but if it leads people to grow in their faith, so much the better. However, it is a forty year old event, a pastoral initiative which is in no way essential to the faith or the Church’s flourishing. If it continues to produce abuses against the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord, it seems obvious it ought to be discontinued, at least in its current form. What’s more important? The Eucharist? Or an event the Church has done quite well without for most of its history?

I can say this much: there are a lot of people who hate that idea. Which is what I found so baffling about the responses to my criticisms. Defenders of WYD acted much more offended by the suggestion that World Youth Day should be discontinued than by offenses against God himself in the Eucharistic host. To be sure, most seemed to condemn the abuses, but not nearly with the same ardor as they defended WYD.

This backward way of thinking, of putting more emphasis and passion into adiaphora (things indifferent, not matters of salvation) than into the fundamental elements of the faith should sound familiar to those who have been involved with the liturgical wars of the past half century and more. Take the whole issue of ad orientem (mass with the priest facing the altar) and vers populum (with the priest facing the congregation) in the liturgy. I certainly think ad orientem should be the way all masses are conducted, but if a few here or there are done vers populum, it is not that big of a deal, and certainly not something I would complain about.

The obverse is definitely NOT the case with defenders of vers populum. The most ardent defenders of that practice attack the idea that the priest is “turning his back” on the congregation, but at times also display an obsession with being seen by the priest, which borders on the hysterical. “THE PRIEST ISN’T LOOKING AT ME WHY ISN’T HE LOOKING AT ME HE HAS TO LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME!” It is as if these people suffer from some sort of Stockholm syndrome with regards to their priests, which, given the adulation with which priests are sometimes showered, is not that surprising.

My point here is that this defense of World Youth Day is characteristic of defenses of the post-Vatican II Church as a whole. Defenders of the reformed liturgy, of the sort of papal cult of personality encouraged by John Paul II, ecumenical gatherings like Assisi, all treat recent innovations by Church leaders as if they were solemnly defined dogmas, while downplaying trends regarding fundamental aspects of the faith, such as declining belief in the Real Presence or dwindling membership and attendance numbers. This putting inordinate emphasis on things of equivocal importance while ignoring problems with fundamentals of the faith is one of the most noticeable trends of the Church post-Vatican II, in my opinion. Call it World Youth Day Syndrome if you like (I don’t insist on the name, but it fits).

This is one of the great mysteries of the post-Vatican II Church. The only thing I can think to explain this is that so much emphasis has been placed on personal experience since Vatican II–on having an “deeper” personal faith, which almost always means in practice a more intensely emotional one. This was a reaction against the perceived “formalism” of the pre-conciliar church, but I think this has been a disaster. In the comments section, when I pointed out that, despite the good experiences of some at WYD, these events did nothing to halt the decline of Church membership and practice (especially among the young, their target), the replies all simply reiterated their personal experience of these events, as if nothing else mattered. The fact that the Church is dying, the fact that our Lord is being abused at these events, is not as important as that they had intense experiences at World Youth Day.

Again, let me repeat: I don’t hate World Youth Day! Intense experiences are actually good (or can be). But they are much less important than if the average parish was more orthodox and more devout week to week, rather than the spiritual wastelands so many of them are. If its organizers can reform it into an event where such abuses no longer take place, then let it continue. But I insist that more traditional gatherings–pilgrimages and the like–are more likely to form people in the faith, be less open to abuse and are a more reliable sign of the vitality of people’s faith than mass events like WYD. And in any case, the intense focus on them just seems misguided. World Youth Day is not evil. It is just not that important in the grand scheme of things.

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