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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
The trends away from religious identification and devotion are worldwide and broad, though.
According to the U.S. Statistical Abstract, 86 percent of American adults identified as Christians in 1990 but just 76 percent in 2008. Research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate shows that 32 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Catholic rarely or never go to Mass.
Australian census data show that in 1991, 27.3 percent of the country identified as Catholic and 74 percent as Christian of some sort. Those percentages have declined every five years since, to 25.3 percent and 61.1 percent respectively in 2011. A 2009 survey for the country’s bishops conference noted that of Australians who reported being raised Catholic, one-quarter said they now had no religion and more than 40 percent said they never attended Mass.
World Youth Day host nation Brazil, a historically Catholic country unlike the U.S. and Australia, is not immune. The share of its population that calls itself Catholic declined from 92 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 2010.
The Sydney Diocese and surrounding dioceses “did claim a noticeable increase in attendance after World Youth Day, but it’s very hard to quantify it or determine how long it lasted or whether it was due” to the gathering, Father Mason said in an email. “The general trend in [Catholic] attendance is strongly downward, especially among youth, and had been going on for a long time before World Youth Day.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.