Anyone who follows so-called Catholic “influencers” on social media platforms like X (the former Twitter) or Instagram is well aware that Pope Francis just presided over another record-setting World Youth Day (WYD)—this time in Lisbon. And once again—like the halcyon days of John Paul Il—the rock-star presence of the pope assured that the event drew some 1.6 million teens and young adults to the Portuguese capital. Some 700 bishops and more than 10,000 ordained priests also came to this latest edition of “Catholic Woodstock,” an international gathering that has been taking place every two or three years since the mid-1980s. Reporters, bloggers and some of the Jesuit pope’s greatest fans and defenders gave the impression that WYD 2023 rose to some exciting new heights, making the previous 14 editions (or 16, depending on how you count them) pale in significance. But, in fact, the Lisbon gathering was not particularly different from any other of those earlier World Youth Day gatherings. (Congratulations to the official Vatican Media, by the way, which resisted the temptation to play Pravda and refused to hype the event as many in the “pro-Francis” sectors of the Catholic and secular media did.)
First, about those “huge” crowds that left some papal enthusiasts amazed and mesmerized. Lisbon city officials said upwards of 1.6 million people showed up for the Saturday prayer vigil and the next day’s closing Mass. But a number of previous WYD grand finales (again, according to local authorities) actually drew more people. The real record-setter, of course, was Manila in 1995 with nearly 5 million kids chanting, “JP 2, we love you!” When Francis went to Rio de Janeiro just a few months after being elected pope to lead WYD 2013, more than 3.2 million young people crowded the famous Copacabana beachfront for the vigil and closing Mass. Before that, the World Youth Day celebration that took place in Rome during the Great Jubilee of 2000 drew more than 2 million participants. Meanwhile, WYD 2016 in Krakow (Poland) attracted just under 2 million, while the final WYD events that were held in Paris (1997) and Madrid (2011) both drew nearly 1.5 million people.
Second, playing the numbers game is not smart or helpful. The idea that World Youth Day has somehow been a winning ticket for keeping the latest generation of Catholics engaged in the Church does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the numbers more than suggest that teens and young adults are walking away from the institutional Church at ever increasing levels. The massive presence of their peers at these global events does not reflect a groundswell of interest in Catholic faith. Rather, it is much more the result of careful organization, public relations and financial subsidies. The venues that are selected play a key role. Tourist destinations like Paris, Rio, Madrid, Krakow and Rome—to name a few—are big draws, especially if national episcopal conferences (like the one in Italy) or other Church organizations subsidize a young person’s travel expense, and local hosts offer free or very inexpensive lodgings and meals. And then there is the pope. If he weren't going be there, local dioceses, parishes, youth groups and so forth would not be promoting World Youth Day so vigorously. How many among the 700 bishops and 10,000 priests would have been in Lisbon had the pope not been part of the program? In fact, Francis was the centerpiece of WYD 2023, just as he was at Rio (2013), Krakow (2016) and Panama (2019). In this, he has continued to play his role at the youth gatherings in ways that are uncannily similar to the way John Paul II did.
Third, each new generation of WYD reporters, bloggers and (now) social media “influencers” apparently has no awareness or recollection of what happened at previous youth gatherings organized around the pope. And that is why it seems the key takeaway message that comes from each new edition of these Catholic Woodstock moments is that they are destined to suddenly revive the Church in unprecedented ways and abruptly reverse the trend of people walking away. The key message Francis imparted this year to the teens and young adults at the “bigger and better” happening in Lisbon was that everyone is welcomed in the Church. “Todos! Todos! Todos!” he said in at least three or four different addresses during his time in Portugal. As messages go, this is a darn good and very hopeful one. And maybe some of the 1.6 million in the crowd believed it. But most young Catholics—especially young women and even many in the LGBTQ+ community—know, by now, that this is little more than a marketing slogan. They (we) know that the Roman Church remains misogynist and that women and LGBTQ+ folk remain second-class Catholics (at best) and will remain such. Yet, they (we) all applaud the elderly pope, just like in the old days ... A commentator once famously said about the WYD crowds' fawning adoration of John Paul II, “They like the singer, but not the song.” When it comes to Francis, it's more like, “They love the singer, but they're not interested in his band (the Church).”
The meticulously choreographed events that take place during the weeklong World Youth Day, which are carefully put together with the use of contemporary music and entertainment, are obviously meant to present the youthful and vibrant face of the Catholic Church and to help Church leaders better communicate with teens and young adults. This is certainly all a worthy effort, but it seems to bear meager fruit. Yes, there are many priests and consecrated religious who claim that a WYD experience at one time in their life was instrumental, even decisive, to discovering their Church vocation. But anecdotes aside, there is no statistical evidence to suggest that these jamborees have caused even the slightest uptick, let alone a spike, in vocations to the presbyterate or religious life. The World Youth Day formula was devised during the early years of John Paul II's reign. And many thought it was the answer for growing the Catholic faith. But, let's be honest, this formula has not evolved much since its very beginning, even in the “evolutionary” pontificate of Pope Francis.
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.