Benedict’s WYD

  • August 24, 2011

They endured egg-frying heat, followed by lightning, howling wind and pounding rain. They slept on hard ground. Food and water was scarce. Washroom lineups were 90 minutes long. More than 2,500 of them were treated for heat-stroke and dehydration. And yet they stayed.

The overnight vigil and next-day Mass that closed World Youth Day in Madrid overflowed with 1.5 million pilgrims. Another 250,000 young people, including many of the 5,000 Canadians in Spain, were denied access for safety reasons to the crammed, dusty airstrip that served as the final meeting place of WYD. The staggering numbers exceeded all predictions.

By comparison, the crowd that attended and tried to attend the papal Mass was the size of last year’s entire 81-game attendance of the Toronto Blue Jays. The pilgrims came largely from Europe, but also in great numbers from North and South America, Asia, Africa and Australia. Almost all the nations on Earth were represented, drawn together in a celebration of fellowship and faith.

Attendees described the huge, peaceful crowds as “breathtaking.” They gathered in an area the size of 48 football fields. Pilgrims exclaimed there was nothing but joyous young people hoisting flags and banners for as far as the eye could see.

When Pope Benedict XVI succeeded Blessed John Paul II in 2005 many people wondered what would become of WYD. The charismatic John Paul founded WYD in 1985 and presided over the first nine global gatherings of Catholic youth. Everywhere he went, John Paul attracted huge, adoring crowds. He connected with youth in a way that few, if any, pontiffs ever had.

{iframe width="100%" height="125px"}{/iframe}Benedict was 78 when the College of Cardinals elected him Pope. To his critics, his age was a strike against him, particularly in terms of connecting with young Catholics. Also, in contrast to the warm, embracing personality of his predecessor, Benedict was widely portrayed — unfairly it turns out — as cold, inflexible and old-fashioned, hardly the right person to carry on the important ministry of WYD.

But by the hundreds of thousands, the crowds in Madrid joyously demonstrated how wrong the naysayers were about Benedict. The WYD franchise has never been stronger. Despite ineptness by organizers — the Vatican should take steps to ensure there is never a repeat of the mayhem that plagued Madrid — Benedict has transcended the generations and become a worthy successor to the youth legacy of Blessed John Paul II.

He may not ooze John Paul’s natural charisma, but Benedict has a humble, intelligent, grandfatherly appeal that obviously resonates with youth. They are eager to follow him. His message to them was straightforward and heartfelt: reject individualism and lifestyle choices that exclude God and return home in discipleship to take up a ministry of love and service to others.

And off they went — almost two million strong.

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