Ten years ago, Blessed John Paul II was in Toronto for the World Youth Day, the largest single religious event in Canadian history. Those happy days on the streets of Toronto now stand out in ever starker relief to other mass gatherings – notably the G20 summit, which descended into hostility, violence, abuse of police power and a staggering bill for all the unpleasantness. World Youth Day (WYD) was what other great international gatherings only pretend to be, namely authentic exchanges between ordinary people from various nations and cultures.
WYD was the inspired genius of the late pope, who thought it would be a grand idea to invite the youth of the world to meet with him in order to pray, learn about the faith, experience the mercy of God in sacramental confession, adore the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist, and camp overnight, keeping vigil for a massive outdoor papal Mass. His advisers back in the mid-1980s were aghast. What if the pope invited the young, and nobody came? It would be terribly embarrassing, and confirm what everybody knew, that faith in the late-20th century was reserved for elderly widows. But he persisted, and the first few WYDs drew enormous crowds in Rome (1985), Buenos Aires (1987), Santiago de Compostela (1989) and Czestochowa (1991).
Then he became truly audacious. John Paul chose to take WYD to Denver in 1993. This time even the American bishops were aghast. Had the pope gone mad? Was he suffering delusions of grandeur after dismantling the Soviet empire? It was one thing to have WYD in a Catholic country where hundreds of thousands would show up no matter what the pope was doing, or in famous shrines in Spain and Poland, but Denver?
John Paul wanted to test his evangelical intuition, that the Gospel could find a response even in a secular city with no history of religious pilgrimage. He wanted to show that the Gospel had not lost its power to attract the hearts of the young, and the place to demonstrate that was in Denver. After all, the late Holy Father said over and over again, young people the world over had the same questions, motivated by their high ideals, and he wanted to propose to them the same answer: Jesus Christ.
Denver proved a smashing success, and WYD became, alongside the Hajj, the largest regular human event in the world, bigger but far less costly than the Olympics, as the citizens of Beijing and London have learned. Cities eagerly bid to host it. Manila in 1995 was the largest gathering in the history of humanity, upwards of 5 million; Paris 1997 opened the eyes of a France that had forgotten its faith; Rome 2000 was a jubilee year homecoming; and then came Toronto 2002 – a secular, self-consciously multicultural city would be conquered by the joyous faith of Christian young people.
WYD had something to teach Canada. The secular fundamentalist story is ceaselessly told, making up in vigour in the retelling what it lacks in truth. WYD Toronto demonstrated that faith is very much part of our common life, and not just our past but also our future. Canadians saw what sensible people already know, namely that religion is a force for good. Crime was down. Laughter was up. Toronto’s dreary subways and gloomy streetcars were filled with smiles and songs. The young people who haunt the urban imagination as profane and dangerous were replaced by Christian pilgrims who reminded us that young people are naturally, or perhaps supernaturally, cheerful and enterprising, not sullen and jaded. At last, in a city that endlessly bleats about multiculturalism, people finally saw what a real multicultural institution looks like, where unity is not enforced by law but is the organic fruit of a universal faith.
Toronto lusts after global events, and is not fussy. It will host the Pan-American Games in 2015, one of those rare events that is forgettable even in anticipation. The city is exploring bids for Expo 2025, and now the usual noises are being made about bidding (again) for the Olympics (this time, the 2024 games). Toronto dreams of being Rio de Janeiro, which will be host of the World Cup final match in 2014, the Olympics in 2016 and, yes, WYD in 2013. Toronto should be grateful. WYD is bigger, better and far cheaper than the Olympics. WYD 2002 was Toronto’s finest hour.
A young girl cries after meeting Pope John Paul II, left. The Pope was in Toronto to participate in World Youth
A longer version of this column appeared in the July/August issue of Convivium, a new magazine of which Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief: www.cardus.ca/convivium