Pilgrims or Tourists? The Origins of World Youth Day

An initiative of the late Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day has become the largest regular gathering of young people in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands, and on occasions, millions of participants. The size and scale of the event has resulted in its comparison to the Olympic Games and it has also necessitated significant organisational and logistical effort and financial support (Norman & Johnson, 2011, p.372).

Much research was showing that a growing number of young people were abandoning ‘institutional religion’, rejecting the core principles and teachings of religious traditions (Horell, 2004; Hughes, 2007; Crawford & Rossiter, 2006) and questioning the existence of God. However, Pope John Paul II believed that they were in fact yearning for the transcendent, desiring a relationship with God.

In an effort to rejuvenate the faith practice and Christian identity of western societies, World Youth Day was intended to be a systematic approach to reach out to and actively engage young people in the life of the Church, especially amongst those who were disconnected. Young Australians have participated in each of the international World Youth Days. During the early history of World Youth Day this involved fewer than thirty pilgrims, mostly drawn from Antioch or similar groups and movements.

The very structure and nature of World Youth Day is underpinned by the practice of pilgrimage and since its very inception participants have been described as pilgrims. The motivations for going on pilgrimage are many and varied. It has been suggested by some sociologists that given the increasing number of people who experience feelings of dislocation and rootlessness in post-modern society, pilgrimage can provide an opportunity to search for personal consciousness, meaning in life and connectedness with others (Graham & Murray, 1997; Lowenthal, 1997; Olsen & Timothy, 2006).

Prior to World Youth Day XXVIII in Madrid the author conducted extensive research with pilgrims from the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, as a means of ascertaining why young people are drawn to the international gathering and to identify their attitudes towards faith, religious practice, community and self. The author’s research (2010-2013) indicates considerable differences in the attitudes of school aged pilgrims towards faith, religious practice, community and self when compared to the views and perceptions of the adult pilgrims. While they are less connected with Church, they are by no means disaffected or indifferent to the Gospel message.

Many of the school pilgrims consistently referred to a ‘sense of searching’, to describe their understanding of self and their relationship with God. When he initiated World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II may well have had in mind St Augustine’s words, ‘You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ (Confessions, Chapter 1), and their particular relevance to young people.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 2, Pages 17-19

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