WYD: World Youth Day's evolution from Chaucer to 'Evangelical Pilgrimage'


In the media and popular culture, World Youth Day is often dubbed the “Catholic Woodstock,” or the “Olympic Games” of world religion. Among Catholic insiders, however, the preferred argot is “pilgrimage,” and the youth who take part are described as “pilgrims.”

Yet if Geoffrey Chaucer somehow were to drop in on Sydney, Australia, this week, it’s not at all clear he would be reminded of the kind of spiritual journey he described in The Canterbury Tales.

That disorientation would not simply be the result of modern means of transportation, lodging and communication utterly inconceivable to the Wife of Bath. It’s also because the nature of World Youth Day has evolved over its three decades, moving away from the traditional understanding of what it means to be a pilgrim, classically captured in Chaucer's work, towards a new model that merits a new term: “Evangelical Pilgrimage.”

Traditionally, a pilgrimage has been understood as a journey that takes one progressively away from “the world,” towards a famed spiritual center – Lourdes, for example, or the Holy Land, or, as in Chaucer's case, Canterbury. That’s the sense in which people today still refer to a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, or to San Giovanni Rotondo, the principal shrine of Padre Pio in southern Italy.

In the beginning, World Youth Days were conceived as pilgrimages in this classic sense. The 1989 edition, for example, was held in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and in 1991 Catholic youth converged upon the famed Polish shrine of the Black Madonna in Cz?stochowa. Both have been traditional pilgrimage destinations for centuries.

Along the way, however, something unexpected happened. Turnout exceeded even high-end estimates, and the youthful passion of the pilgrims elicited strong media interest. As a result, World Youth Day went from being largely an inner-Catholic affair to a "happening" that captured the imagination of the broader culture.

In the wake of those experiences, church officials began to grasp that the value of World Youth Day lies not only in the spiritual formation it offers to young people, but also the evangelical witness those young people offer to the world.

One could date the emergence of World Youth Day as a model of "Evangelical Pilgrimage" to 1993. In that year, the event was held in Denver, Colorado, hardly anyone’s idea of a traditional pilgrimage center. In the years since, World Youth Days have been held in such disparate locales as Paris, Toronto, Cologne, and now Sydney. Some might be considered traditional pilgrimage destinations and some not, but that’s no longer the common term.

Rather, sites now seem to be chosen for World Youth Days not because they’re seen as reservoirs of spiritual energy, but rather because they’re suffering from spiritual drought. In other words, the aim is not to escape secularism, but rather to challenge it on its home turf.

By all accounts, Denver was the key to this paradigm shift. Prior to the event, staging World Youth Day in a city without a strong Catholic culture, and with a strongly secular ethos, was considered an enormous gamble. Behind the scenes, organizers and Vatican officials worried about low turnout and public indifference.

In the end, the event was perceived as a huge success that energized the local church.

“Looking back, the church in northern Colorado is dramatically different” because of what happened at World Youth Day, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver said in 2002. Among other things, Chaput said that Denver’s two seminaries were “literally running out of room for candidates,” one expression of a renewal that he traced to 1993.

Moreover, the Denver World Youth Day also generated an avalanche of positive PR for the church, protecting a vigorous image in a culture more accustomed to thinking of institutional religion as gradually slouching towards oblivion.

The 2002 version of World Youth Day in Toronto, another massively secular locale, largely replicated this success, once again offering an image of Catholicism as youthful and alive.

These days, the relevant question in picking a location no longer seems to be which site World Youth Day most needs, but rather which site most needs a World Youth Day.

During the last three years of preparation for the Sydney edition, this has been the constant drumbeat from Cardinal George Pell: Australia, as one of the world’s most secularized societies, desperately needs World Youth Day to provide a new burst of energy and to showcase the dynamism of the church.

That’s what it means to call World Youth Day an “Evangelical Pilgrimage.” Today, the focus is not merely, or even primarily, upon the inner spiritual experience of the participants, as important as that is, but rather upon the public impact of the event – its capacity to stoke the embers of the faith, to rouse a secular world from its dogmatic slumber … in a word, to evangelize.

Though the official announcement of the site for the next World Youth Day will not be made until Sunday, sources tell NCR that it’s likely to move back to Europe, this time in Madrid, Spain.

If so, that choice would certainly fit the pattern. Not only does Madrid reflect the broadly secularizing currents of Western culture, but it is also the front line of the “culture wars” in today’s Europe under the Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. In some ways the church in Spain these days perceives itself as under siege, and no doubt officials see a World Youth Day as a powerful way of pushing back.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether this week’s event in Sydney will offer the evangelical stimulus for which Pell and others are hoping. Nevertheless, the captivating imagery of Pope Benedict XVI making his entrance on a cruise ship into Sydney Harbor, surrounded by pumped-up young people from the four corners of the earth, has already given the Catholic church in Australia one of its biggest and best PR days in recent memory.

In a nutshell, that’s what Evangelical Pilgrimage is all about.

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