Pope Francis heads for Panama today to celebrate World Youth Day, the global Catholic youth festival launched by St. Pope John Paul II in 1986. Given his experience working with young people in his native Poland, John Paul had a sort of “Field of Dreams” intuition that if you build it, they will come … and come they have, in the millions, every two or three years for more than three decades now.
Of course, most people won’t be in Panama, so to the extent they have any sense of what’s going on it will be through the press.
Assuming the past is prologue, there will actually be two highly distinct World Youth Days in Panama: The event as recounted in media coverage, and the same event as experienced by the people actually taking part. That’s been the case with basically every edition of WYD - for that matter, with most papal trips of any sort - and there’s no reason to think this one will be any different.
Reporting about the trip will likely be dominated by a couple of unavoidable themes, involving both scandal and politics.
Francis is heading to Central America against the backdrop of unrelenting clerical sexual abuse scandals, most recently involving an Argentine bishop brought to Rome by the pontiff facing abuse allegations back home. A recent report by the Associated Press suggests the Vatican was aware of those charges, despite earlier denials.
The Panama outing also comes just one month before a Feb. 21-24 summit for presidents of all the bishops’ conferences of the world called by Francis to discuss the abuse scandals. Especially given that this is a gathering of youth, the legacy of failure to adequately protect young people from abuse is necessarily part of the subtext.
Francis is also traveling to a Central American nation where immigration is a live political issue, in terms both of Panama’s role as a transit point for migrants seeking to reach the United States and also as a host nation itself.
For the American media in particular, anything the pope says on immigration may be styled as a challenge to the Trump administration - giving the trip a clear political edge.
Both the abuse scandals and immigration debates are critical parts of the Catholic story these days. Journalists have no choice but to pursue them, and if we didn’t use World Youth Day as an opportunity to do so, readers and viewers would rightly accuse us of malpractice.
Still, it’s important to be clear that scandal and politics aren’t the only story that will be unfolding over the next several days. Here’s a quick guide to other things which, almost certainly, will also be happening.
Vocations will be born and strengthened: Though John Paul II didn’t necessarily envision World Youth Day at the beginning as a recruiting tool for the priesthood and religious life, it’s taken on that function over the years. Surveys of newly ordained priests over the last couple of decades routinely show that a striking percentage of those vocations were either born at a World Youth Day or solidified there. (Americans are often surprised to learn that priest shortages are actually far more acute in Central America than in the United States, making the potential vocations boomlet often associated with a World Youth Day even more valuable.)
Marriages will be hatched: What goes for vocations to the priesthood also applies to the vocation to marriage. It’s not exactly as if World Youth Day is a speed-dating service, but it is an environment in which young Catholic couples often launch new relationships or deepen them. A portion of Catholic newlyweds around the world often credits the experience of sharing a World Youth Day with bringing them together; others use a World Youth Day as almost a second honeymoon, combining faith with romance.
Conversions will occur: One way to think about the sociology of a World Youth Day is this: Roughly a third of the youth are inner-core Catholics, another third are on the edges, and a final third are just along for the ride. Pastorally, the aim is always to nudge a few from that second set into the first, and a few from the third set into the second. It happens, and more often than one might think, as generally illustrated by the endless lines for confessionals erected in and around the venues for the major events. (This too is critical for Panama, since the explosion of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements in Central America along with growing secularism have cut into once-high levels of faith and practice.)
Catholicism will seem cool: Many Catholic youth don’t exactly get a lot of positive reinforcement for taking the faith seriously back home. In schools, neighborhoods and social settings, religious earnestness is often subtly discouraged if not actively mocked. For a brief, shining moment this week, however, being “loud and proud” about Catholic identity will feel normal and supported, which amounts to a spiritual shot in the arm participants often say was the most valuable take-away from the whole thing.
None of that, of course, is likely to drive headlines - such matters are too churchy, too ephemeral and hard to measure, and, for most reporters, even talking about them out loud can seem like a propaganda exercise on behalf of the event’s institutional sponsors.
However, such things are inevitably part of the fabric of a World Youth Day, and they’re also a core part of why popes show up at these shindigs in the first place. Understanding what Francis is doing in Panama, therefore, requires keeping these outcomes in focus, even if they’re not likely to be fodder for his press conference on the way home.