Now that World Youth Day 2016 is in the past, the dust has settled, the many international pilgrims who visited Poland are returning home, and Krakow is cleaning up after and transitioning back to everyday life, we can look back at this great event and draw the most important conclusions. At a time when Europe—the Christian identity of which has been eroding for decades and which in recent weeks has been devastated by a shocking wave of terror—most desperately needed hope, 2-3 million pilgrims gave the Old Continent a breath of optimism. Evaluating World Youth Day 2016, one can have reason to be hopeful about the future.
In terms of sheer numbers, World Youth Day 2016 was a tremendous success. When Pope Francis announced in 2013 that the next World Youth Day would take place in Krakow, the Polish bishops optimistically predicted that 2.5 million pilgrims would attend. By early 2016, the projected number fell to 1.5 million. The rate at which pilgrims were registering to participate continued to fall below expectations for months. Fresh terrorist attacks across Europe seemed to scare many people away from participating in a major public event in the open air, while some of the Polish media inferred that this declining projected turnout was the result of growing religious indifference among Polish youths. In private, quite a few Polish Catholics I know voiced fears that the event would be poorly attended and be considered a flop for the Church.
Indeed, the number of pilgrims was different than the projections…it was much higher. Between two and three million people attended the Mass concluding World Youth Day in Brzegi outside Krakow. Other World Youth Day events, such as last Friday’s Stations of the Cross with Pope Francis (which drew 800,000 participants), were also overwhelmingly successful. Of all the editions of World Youth Day held so far, only Manila (1995) and Rio de Janeiro (2013) drew bigger crowds.
This enormous success shows that Catholicism is alive and well in Poland. In an age of globalism, Poland is not impervious to the secularizing currents flowing from the West. However, the turnout at the World Youth Day events proves that Poland still is a Christian powerhouse and one of the world’s most intact Catholic cultures. The enormous crowds during Sunday’s closing Mass swelled, thanks to Poles: international pilgrims there were in the minority, and Brzegi was deluged by many Polish priests and seminarians, students and retirees, young couples and large families coming from across the country to see Pope Francis. Trains across Poland were standing-room only, while highways experienced nightmarish traffic. When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Pope St. John Paul II hoped that his countrymen would help to re-Christianize Western Europe. Turnout during World Youth Day shows that the Polish people still have the potential help the West to rediscover its roots.
On a related note, World Youth Day 2016 proves that there still is hope for Europe. Many books and articles have lamented the dramatic decline of institutional Christianity in contemporary Western Europe. However, the battle is still far from being lost. After the Poles, the two largest national groups at World Youth Day 2016 were the Italians and French. No, that was not a misprint. Secularized France has growing pockets of uncompromising young Catholics, many of them active in new Church movements, and this was very much visible last week. I saw many French flags waving across Krakow, and I heard so many people on the streets singing religious songs in French that I sometimes wondered if perhaps I had not traveled back in time to before 1789. Meanwhile, I met numerous Italians active in Communione e Liberazione and other movements. A whopping 7,000 Portuguese pilgrims registered for WYD 2016; this was the largest Portuguese contingent at the event except for in 2011, when it was held in neighboring Spain. There were also a great many Ukrainians; indeed, after being in the catacombs for decades under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is experiencing a revival, which offers hope for that war and poverty-stricken land.
World Youth Day 2016 also shows that faith is infectious. Blessed Pope Paul VI said that the Church needs witnesses more than teachers. There is no invitation to the faith that is more effective than to live according to the Gospels faithfully. Recall Malcolm Muggeridge, an agnostic British journalist who converted to Christianity after seeing the saintly work of Mother Teresa in India. Walking across the streets of Krakow, I could feel the joy that many locals felt seeing these crowds of young people on fire with their faith. I had never seen Poles so happy, helpful, and inspired before. Talking to people who attended previous editions of World Youth Day in other cities, I was told that there were similar reactions there.
Another striking observation about World Youth Day 2016 is that, 11 years after his death, Pope St. John Paul II is still very much alive in the hearts of young Catholics. Images of John Paul were omnipresent on pilgrims’ T-shirts. Talking to pilgrims from different continents, I heard many of them cite the Polish pope, his ministry to young people, and his Theology of the Body as profoundly inspiring them. The surprising thing is that most of these pilgrims are now in their late teens and early 20s; they were small children when John Paul died, yet to them he is much more than a historical figure. St. John Paul II continues to inspire, and his life and legacy can lead to the renewal of the Church.
The success of World Youth Day shows that, contrary to the grumblings of many in the Church, young people continue to have a thirst for spirituality. Pope St. John Paul II knew this well, and that was why he created World Youth Day in the first place. Many young people in the West today have had a nominal Christian upbringing (or none at all). The enormous number of young Europeans and North Americans who are in many ways like their peers, yet are on fire with their faith, show that young people can still be reached.
During my time in Krakow, I wrote an article about the WYD vocations fair. Participants in the fair said that many young people responded positively to the call to consider a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life (or marriage, which is in grave crisis in the West). We can bring more young people to the Church; we just need to make an effort to reach them.
Jesus told St. Faustina that the spark that would prepare the world for His second coming would come from Poland. The enduring legacy of Pope St. John Paul II that continues to inspire young Catholics to embrace their faith, as well as the dizzying success of this year’s edition of World Youth Day, seem to confirm this. At a time when the West, especially Europe, seems to have lost its moral compass, its sense of meaning, and its confidence, John Paul and World Youth Day can still remind our civilization of its Christian origins. Now is the time for the millions of pilgrims who came to Krakow to go out and live their faith publicly and uncompromisingly.