August 22, 2011

Setting the record straight about World Youth Day

By Christopher Stefanick *

By Christopher Stefanick *

Denver pilgrims got front row seats to the riots that took place in Madrid to protest World Youth Day.  They broke out just outside of our hotel.  Thankfully, no one was hurt. 
The incident was spun by many mainstream news outlets around the world with the same choice words.  Google “lavish party for the Pope” and you’ll be amazed at the lack of originality in reporting.  To cite one outlet, the Denver Post posited that “Thousands of protesters…took to Madrid’s streets to decry the expense of a rock festival-style, million-strong youth party for Pope Benedict XVI at a time of economic crisis…in time for lavish World Youth Day celebrations.” 
The spin accomplished by this reporting gives me media induced vertigo.  To set the record straight, in case you were successfully spun: World Youth Days is not a luxurious party for a megalomaniacal octogenarian that drains a different nation’s economy every three years.    
Anyone who has been to a World Youth Day would chuckle at the choice of the word “lavish” to describe the experience.  Have you ever waited 90-minutes to use a porta-potty?  I have!  Only at World Youth Day.  It’s a pilgrimage in the truest sense.  While vacations are for rest and luxury (if you can afford the latter), pilgrimages tend to be packed with redemptive suffering.  This can be especially true at a World Youth Day.  Even if pilgrims attempt to avoid austerity, it has a way of finding you when you’re in a crowd one million strong.  There’s simply no way for a city to gracefully accommodate such numbers.  World Youth Day pilgrims are often hungry, thirsty, tired, and without access to bathrooms, among other basic necessities.  Though miraculously they’re usually smiling!  
As for World Youth Day being a “party for the Pope,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a single pilgrim who would describe the purpose of his trip in those terms—the Pope included.  Labeling it a “party for the Pope” is like labeling the Democratic National Convention that took place in Denver a “party for Obama.”  World Youth Day is a celebration of Catholic youth with the Pope.  Are they excited about the Pope?  You bet!  But that’s a far cry from the occasion being a party “for” him. 
And as far as World Youth Days hurting the economies of host cities, nothing could be further from the truth.  According to the executive director of World Youth Day Madrid, Yago de la Cierva, not a dime of the event’s expenses came from the taxpayers of Madrid.  Thirty percent was from donations and 70 percent from fees the pilgrims paid.  But the irony is that even if protestors were correct about the source of the funding, some basic math would reveal that they still have no good reason to protest.  World Youth Day brings in about one million visitors who spend at least $20 per day for at least six days.  That's a minimum of $120 million—though event organizers estimate that World Youth Day will pump $144 million into the local economy.  Even if the city had put $70 million into the event, it would have doubled on the investment for its people.  Perhaps the rioters should turn their anger toward math illiteracy. 
Only a people steeped in the dogmas of the “culture of death”—wherein humans are always seen as a “drain”—would overlook the obvious financial blessings of a crowd one million strong. 
The good news is that even if a riot is thousands strong and reaches a violent pitch, if it happens in a crowd of a million most of those present won’t even notice it!  This was the case in Madrid.  While our Denver pilgrims had the unfortunate experience of getting a bird’s-eye view of the riots, most pilgrims weren’t even aware it was happening.  The culture of death was muted by the sheer multitude of joyful Catholic young people celebrating the beauty and universality of their faith.  
Along those lines, it could well be that this article is your first wind of any bad press at all about World Youth Day.  That’s understandable.  If you Google “World Youth Day,” there’s so much Catholic news, positive press, and so many youth group websites that it takes several pages to find a negative story from mainstream media. 
Maybe what constitutes “mainstream” is changing.  A million youth that just got home from Spain probably think so. 

Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of youth outreach for YDisciple. Visit him at


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