337. What the World Youth Day is all about!
It all started with a meeting hosted by Pope John Paul II in 1984. It was an encounter embraced by the youth. Voices that needed to be heard and a heart ready to receive them. The World Youth Day (WYD) as it was named in 1985 continues to show the world the witness of a living and renewing faith in every young person.
The World Youth Day, international event is held every 2 or 3 years as an international meeting of young people with the Pope, which lasts about a week. After the Rome events in the mid-80s international gatherings were held in Buenos Aires, Argentina ( 1987), with the participation of 1 million youth; in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1989) with 600 thousand youth; Czestochowa, Poland (1991) with 1.5 million youth; in Denver, USA ( 1993) with 500 thousand youth; Manila, Philippines (1995) with 4 million youth; in Paris, France (1997) with 1 million youth; in Rome, Italy (2000) with 2 million youth; in Toronto, Canada (2002) with 800 thousand youth; in Cologne, Germany (2005) with 1 million youth; in Sydney, Australia (2008) with 500 thousand youth; in Madrid, Spain (2011) with 2 million youth and in Rio, Brazil (2013) with 3 million youth. The next edition in 2016 will be hosted by Krakow, Poland (the birth place of John Paul II).
In addition to being in a new country, with its tourist charms, participation in the day requires a prepared body for the pilgrimage and an open heart to the wonders that are in store for each one. They are catechesis, testimonies, sharing examples of kindness, music festivals and cultural activities. Finally, it is a meeting of hearts that are driven by the same belief and hope that the diversity in fraternity is possible.
The WYD is one of the largest gatherings of human beings in a new location each edition. Two other events that outnumber this event are the Haj pilgrimage and the Kumbh Mela but these take place in the same location and infrastructure is tried and tested. That aspect makes WYD highly challenging for the organisers. Other than Rome 11 cities have hosted the event and the event has taken place in every continent except Africa. The 2013 edition in Rio was unique in many ways. It was being held in a nation which has the highest number of Catholics and it was the first one with Pope Francis (who hails from the region) among several other factors. And for me personally, it was two weeks of learning, sharing and serving. I was selected as one of the 3000 international volunteers. The other 55,000 volunteers would be from Rio and from other parts of Brazil. Yes – that is the number of people required to serve in 10 departments to pull off an event that has 3 million people coming together. Delegates to the event are called pilgrims as the event is not a conference and the luxuries are few. A lot of walking is involved and one half of each day is devoted to celebrating the faith about which I will discuss in the next paragraph. While the event is organised by the Catholic Church for young people anyone who is willing to attend from any religion is welcome to attend and there is no strict age bar.
The six day event typically kicks off on a Tuesday evening with an inaugural mass being the first of five main events. This is celebrated by the local Bishop. The following day is when the Pope arrives and the evening is devoted to the second main event of Welcoming the Pope with a cultural extravaganza. Through the six days various parts of the city host a variety of cultural programmes that are free for all to attend. The third day is when special exhibitions are held that run through the end of the event. The fourth day is the Way of the Cross evening where the pilgrims participate in an enactment of Jesus’ final journey through 14 stations. The fifth evening is the night vigil with the Pope after which all pilgrims sleep at the venue in sleeping bags under the sky to wake up in the morning for the final mass with the Pope which includes the event closure and announcement of the next venue. The special events run from Day 2 to 4 which are held in 250 to 300 centers spread across the city which are called Catechesis and are led on each day by a different archbishop or cardinal. As a volunteer I was in a group with two other international volunteers to help organize the Catechesis at one center over three mornings. A bulk of the logistical work is undertaken by the local volunteers. Several of us our fortunate to be hosted by local families and live their life for the week of the event but as volunteers we are expected to be at the host city a week prior to the event for orientation and training and so we get an additional week with host families.
During the time of preparing for the event many of us manage to do some touristy things and check the sights the city has to offer. Most other pilgrims do not have the luxury of this time and have to squeeze in as much during the event days which makes it harder given the swelling of the crowds. I will write in a subsequent blog about the people, the culture, the food, the attractions and my observations of the city of Rio De Janiero.
My biggest learning from the event is about my religion and I learnt that at two levels from two sets of people. First, from the local people I interacted with most of whom are Catholic but do not practice the religion. And the learning is to be kind, helpful and friendly, no matter what. The second was from two rockstars – one is called Pope Francis whose every action was a genuine act of Public Relations and the other is a potential future Pope whom I had the opportunity to closely interact with and who explained that to be catholic and practice the religion is not about converting others, showing off religiosity, distributing free bibles or making a show in Church but as cardinal Timothy Dolan put it is about being Joyful and spreading that joy to others, about being Kind and helping others in need through charitable ways and about being Humble and not trying to live a life of entitlements. To me that is the religion of humanism.
And I believe every young person should get a chance to attend at least one World Youth Day in his or her lifetime for the sheer experience that it offers. I went for one in 2000 as a pilgrim. At this one I was a volunteer and I want to pay it back. So in 2016 I will sponsor one young person from my home town.
I will write a couple of public columns about my learning from the event from a communications standpoint and my observations of Pope Francis’ public relations acumen. Hope you enjoyed reading. Here are few links
If any of you wants to attend the 2016 edition in Krakow feel free to reach out to me for guidance.