- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2013

Pope Francis kicked off the first World Youth Day festival of his papacy, addressing hundreds of thousands of rain-soaked young pilgrims from around the world who flocked to Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana Beach to hear his message.

But the church’s own research questions the longer-term impact of the massive, weeklong, youth-oriented gatherings begun nearly three decades ago under Pope John Paul II, as well as how effective they have been in reversing the trends toward secularization and declining membership in Catholic and other Christian denominations in the West and in the developing world.

“There are certainly some individual testimonies that World Youth Day ‘turned them on’ to faith when they had been previously uninterested and nonpracticing, and influenced their choice of vocation — but that’s not the same as a quantifiable general effect,” said the Rev. Michael Mason of Australian Catholic University.

PHOTOS: At World Youth Day, pope brings hope to refill pews

Father Mason, along with his associates Andrew Singleton and Ruth Webber, has been conducting a research project “Pilgrim’s Progress” on thousands of Catholic youths who attended the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney.

In an email to The Washington Times and in his team’s research papers, Father Mason, a Redemptorist priest, said that the effects of World Youth Day are noticeable in several ways, but are small compared with the general secularization of Western societies and falling-away of younger believers from the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies.

Pilgrims from 175 nations cheer as Pope Francis arrives Thursday in Rio de Janeiro. World Youth Day pilgrims, studies show, are more likely to be devout in an increasingly secularized world. (Associated Press)
Pilgrims from 175 nations cheer as Pope Francis arrives Thursday in Rio ... more >

“When we put these findings in the larger context of the increasingly secular character of Western societies, it becomes clear that these youth celebrations and the conversions to which they give rise are but a small-scale remnant of what was once normal and general: adolescents building an identity founded on a religion shared by their family and their society — an important stage of their religious socialization,” he wrote in a 2010 paper on Sydney pilgrims.

SEE ALSO: Pope Francis tells youth: Be rebellious and ‘mess’ with dioceses

Still, Pope Francis, on his first international trip since his election in March, appeared to be appealing to the youthful pilgrims from an estimated 175 countries to continue their religious activism and engagement long after the Rio gathering is concluded.

On Thursday, his car made its way through pouring rain for his first official World Youth Day event, a welcoming ceremony on the famed Copacabana Beach with, according to Vatican officials, an estimated crowd of 1 million. The vehicle had to stop several times to let Francis kiss babies and receive a cup of mate, the traditional tea of his native Argentina.

Earlier in the day, he visited one of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent and poorest slums and freely waded into the crowds there, too, to kiss people young and old.

“No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world,” the 76-year-old pope told a crowd of thousands in a muddy soccer field in the Varginha shantytown. “No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself.”

Impact disputed

Some religious researchers say the long-term impact of the World Youth Day festivals should not be underestimated.

“Essentially, young Catholic men who attend World Youth Day are about four times more likely to consider becoming a priest and about 1 in 5 new priests in 2013 say they attended a World Youth Day in the past,” said Mark Gray, a research associate professor at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Mary Gautier of the Georgetown center, citing the same research conducted for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about one-quarter of new members of religious orders — nuns, monks and non-parish priests such as the Jesuits — attended a World Youth Day.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis tweeted similarly, “Let us thank Blessed John Paul II for WYD and for the many vocations born during these 28 gatherings.”

Story Continues →