The conventional wisdom of secular journalists has long held that World Youth Day is a “Catholic Woodstock” born under Pope John Paul II and sustained by his personal charisma. The millions of young Catholics who have flocked to this global faith celebration for more than two decades like to party together and loved their late pope. But his defense of orthodox theology and traditional morality was never part of the appeal.
That explanation–that World Youth Day gatherings were successful in spite of the pope’s message, not because of it–has survived in the mainstream media despite enormous evidence to the contrary. It took hold back in 1984, when 300,000 young pilgrims first answered Pope John Paul’s invitation to travel to Rome and join him for a day of prayer. It persisted through 1987, when nearly one million converged on Buenos Aires, and in 1995, when four million flocked to Manila, making that gathering the largest ever recorded in history. The explanation even surfaced in media reports about World Youth Day 2002, when 82-year-old Pope John Paul was so crippled by Parkinson’s that he struggled to walk and slurred his speech. Though he looked nothing like the handsome actor he had once been, many journalists continued to cite his penchant for performance–and not the content of his message–as the reason that 800,000 young pilgrims descended on Toronto to cheer and weep as he called them to conversion.
The world had a chance to test that hypothesis last week, when Cologne hosted the 20th World Youth Day and the first without its founder. In place of John Paul now stood a new pontiff, a shy, cerebral man with considerably less star appeal. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI would not meet young pilgrims as a relatively young man or have a quarter century to court them. He would face them for the first time at age 78, while standing in the long shadow of the only pope they had ever known. If the success of World Youth Day was predicated on the persona of John Paul, then surely this meeting in Cologne would fall flat.
Instead, it was a resounding success. Reality shattered the media myth about World Youth Day as throngs of young Catholics were seen applauding and embracing Pope Benedict. Some one million from nearly 200 countries made the trip to see him. The Mass on Sunday was the largest religious service in Germany’s history and one of the largest in World Youth Day history. Though the new pope’s subdued style was a distinct departure from his predecessor’s, the young crowd wasted no time in adopting a chant for him (“Ben-e-det-to”). Most listened intently to his homily, applauded his remarks, and expressed admiration for their new shepherd.
Focusing on the message is what World Youth Day is all about. Pope John Paul was indeed a man of great magnetism, but he never intended to make World Youth Day his star vehicle. Rather, he saw it as a way to gather young adults at a critical time in their formation, give them an opportunity to ponder life’s deepest questions together, and offer them concrete, serious answers. He never pulled punches for the sake of popularity: He always urged his World Youth Day audiences to reject hedonism and materialism, defend human life, and embrace suffering for the sake of truth. When the cameras pointed to him, he pointed to the Cross.
The young pilgrims who followed him around the world received his message loud and clear. Though many World Youth Day participants failed to live up to the ideal he set before them, many also spent the years since their encounter with the pope trying to do just that. “Denver” has become the first word in many conversion stories told by young American Catholics, who frequently cite the 1993 World Youth Day Mass at Cherry Creek State Park, where they celebrated their faith with the pope and half a million peers, as the first step toward radical life changes. Some gave up the obsessive quest for pleasure that had led them into promiscuity and rabid consumerism. Others discovered a passion for pro-life activism or service to the poor. Many returned to the sacraments.
Such attitudes are not only found among young priests. A recent World Values Survey has found that Catholics in the “millennial generation”–those born in 1982 or later–are gravitating to the traditional religious beliefs and practices of the generations born before World War II. Researchers in 58 countries found that these young Catholics are more likely than their elders to attend Mass, pray daily, consider religion important, and express confidence in the Church.
They are the young Catholics who cheered for Pope Benedict on Sunday as he exhorted them to reject a “do-it-yourself” religion and “seek communion in faith” that is rooted in the institutional Church. “If we think and live according to our communion with Christ, then our eyes will be opened,” Pope Benedict told his audience. ” . . . [W]e will soon realize that it is much better to be useful and at the disposal of others than to be concerned only with the comforts that are offered to us. I know that you as young people have great aspirations, that you want to pledge yourselves to build a better world. Let others see this, let the world see it, since this is exactly the witness that the world expects from the disciples of Jesus Christ.”
It is no wonder the masses in Cologne’s Marienfeld embraced their new pope. His message was the same as the one delivered by their beloved John Paul, one they had traveled from all corners of the earth to hear. Though the pundits have once again failed to get it, the truth of World Youth Day is obvious: Its success has always been about more than a global party or even the beloved pope who made it possible.
It is about the human quest for truth and meaning, and the authentic answers that young seekers are dying to hear–whether from an actor-turned-pastor with rock-star charisma or a shy, cerebral shepherd who loves them just as much.
–Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.