But the young remain among least observant of Catholics throughout the developed world, researchers have consistently found.
According to the 2001 Australian census, the only age groups for which less than 10 percent of Catholics attended weekly Mass — in general, a religious requirement — were Catholics ages 20 to 34. In the U.S., research from 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that the 18- to 29-year-old age group expressed the lowest identification with Christianity (68 percent) and Catholicism (22 percent), and the greatest tendency to have no religious affiliation at all (25 percent).
Father Mason noted that most of the attendees interviewed about the Syndey World Youth Day spoke positively of their experiences, in terms that suggest that the primary effects of the gathering have been to increase devotion and to build community pride in an increasingly secular world.
He said that “44 percent of the Australian Catholics under age 36 who attended [the 2008 Sydney World Youth Day] considered it ‘one of the best experiences in my life,’” and almost one in four described it as a “life-changing event.”
The effects weren’t all on the already highly motivated: About half the pilgrims whom Father Mason’s 2010 paper defined as the least devout — a group more typical of the Catholic population — reported that “their World Youth Day experience had made them determined to follow Christ, to live in his way.” He also noted that such statements did seem to accompany changes in beliefs, practices and behavior.
The Denver Catholic Register marked the 20th anniversary of the city’s hosting of the only U.S.-based World Youth Day by noting the skepticism of U.S. journalists and even the organizers at the time.
“It was predicted that the papal initiative would attract no more than 20,000 young people,” Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, who was Denver archbishop at the time, told the Register.
Instead, 750,000 people showed up in what turned out to be the model structure for subsequent World Youth Days.
“The front page headline of the Sunday Denver Post on Aug. 22, 1993, said it all: ‘World Youth Day: Awesome.’ It had become not only a Denver Catholic Church event but an event of the state of Colorado,” with the closing Mass being the largest public event in its history, Cardinal Stafford said.
“The national and regional increase in religious and priestly vocations is directly traceable to that event. Our two Denver seminaries would not be what they are today without it. They may not have come into existence without it. Only God knows,” he said.
All three popes from John Paul II on have spoken of World Youth Day in terms of what the church calls “the new evangelization,” meaning rekindling the faith of the people in secularizing but historically Christian cultures, as distinct from preaching the Gospel in new nations.
“Two months after Denver’s WYD, the pope greeted Cardinal Stafford saying, ‘Ah! Denver, una revoluzione! (A revolution!)’ A Vatican official explained the pope’s intention, saying that the event had manifested the new evangelization in a huge way,” the Register wrote.
Pope Francis called for young people to shake up the church during a meeting Thursday with thousands of young Argentine pilgrims. He told them to get out into the streets and make a “mess” in order to spread the Catholic religion, saying a church that doesn’t do so simply becomes a nongovernmental charitable group.
“I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses,” he said, not speaking from a prepared script as is customary for popes. “I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures.”