People pray as Pope Francis leads the World Youth Day vigil at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 26, 2019. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: A model for the world

  • January 31, 2019

Young people are not the future of the Church — they are the present.

Pope Francis delivered that message to an estimated crowd of 600,000 young Catholics who packed a park outside Panama City for an all-night vigil and early morning Mass that closed World Youth Day on Jan. 27.

Indeed, much of the current discourse around the Church centres on youth. The news is often unpleasant, from endless stories of young people dismissing Church teaching in favour of secular values to disheartening accounts of clerical sex abuse and cover-ups that have ruined thousands of young lives.

But every three years World Youth Day is an opportunity to celebrate Catholic youth and the joy and hope they represent for a Church desperately needing an infusion of both. 

World Youth Day lets young people command the stage as living examples of faith in action. Watching them interact with each other and with their faith is so unlike watching the institutional Church and a hierarchy that is widely depicted as closed, humourless, bureaucratic and political. By the hundreds of thousands, young people descend every three years on WYD and portray a Church that is happy, alive, engaged and faithful.

Typically, the event is all but ignored by the world’s secular media. That’s a shame. Few events can bring together like-minded people from all parts of the world in peaceful assembly like WYD does time after time. If it were a rock concert with half-a-million ticket-goers it would be front-page news. But because Panama is a magnet for pilgrims, not fans, it barely registers beyond Catholic circles.

Also, at a time when much of the population self identifies as spiritual but not religious, WYD shouts “not so fast!” Young people flocked to Panama for an encounter firmly rooted in Catholic faith. They arrived with little evident shyness about proclaiming that Catholic values are fundamental to who they are and how they will live their lives.

All Catholics could learn from the confident, active way these young people express their faith. Of course they are horrified by abuse scandals that, for them, hit so close to home. Most victims of the clergy crimes are teenagers and young adults. But, to their credit, the pilgrims refused to let those nightmares stop their pursuit of what Pope Francis described to them as a “dream called Jesus.” 

In many ways, WYD models the Gospel in how it gives life to Christ-like virtues in a joyful and hopeful faith-filled environment. At a time in its history when the Church spends considerable energy on matters that divide Catholics, WYD puts the focus on what unites us. It is a model that should instruct all Catholics. 

The Pope is right. Rather than regard this as the future Church, it should be the Church of today.

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