The Key Themes of World Youth Day 2013

The words and actions of Pope Francis in Brazil built directly on the evangelizing work of his predecessors

Two valuable lessons came out of World Youth Day 2013. The first is that the Holy Spirit is intent on igniting with joy and resilience the post-conciliar Church of the twenty-first century. The second is that, in large part due to the catechetical influences of Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis’s flock can better balance the joys of the Spirit with the Cross of Christ.

It will be helpful, then, to ponder some themes from Rio’s World Youth Day because it is highly likely we’ll be encountering them repeatedly as an energized Pope Francis shepherds his flock deeper into the twenty-first century.

Go and Make Disciples

“Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits: he sends us to everyone. The Gospel is for everyone, not just for some. It is not only for those who seem closer to us, more receptive, more welcoming. It is for everyone. Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent. The Lord seeks all, he wants everyone to feel the warmth of his mercy and his love.” — Pope Francis’s closing homily, World Youth Day, 2013.

Popes, bishops, and even laity have said and written much during these past few years on the New Evangelization. When planning for World Youth Day 2013 began during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI the time had come to urge the Church to act. Thus the theme “Go and make disciples” seemed fitting for an event that draws millions of young people and many millions more (of every age) through social media.

But then Benedict XVI’s doctors told him that he could no longer travel by air. And it seemed likely that even if he could he might not have the strength that World Youth Day schedules demand. (One wonders how much his being unable to travel to Rio de Janeiro influenced his decision to cede the Chair of St. Peter.)

The question of whether the pope would attend World Youth Day vanished with the papal transition. Pope Francis brought to the world stage a bold and gregarious personality. He changed the rules of papal engagement and accelerated the use of social media. He continues to bring his own style to the papacy, one that resonates in a world of political uncertainty, economic struggle, and a growing weariness with impersonal spirituality.

With a stronger, younger body than his predecessor’s, Pope Francis began charging into crowds—which, come to think of it, seems natural to do for those who espouse an incarnational faith. Once inside the crowds, whether in Rome or Rio or wherever, he is especially happy when he meets those on the outskirts.

We see the fruits of this charging in and greeting the outskirts by listening to those who are not at all enamored with Catholicism but are attracted to Pope Francis. For example, of those commenting on a Huffington Post story about the pontiff at World Youth Day we find one reader noting that “I’m not a Catholic but his defense of the Amazon makes me care for this Pope;” another, “I like this Pope and I’m a hard core Atheist;” and another, “[w]ell, I must say this Pope is changing my view of Pope’s [sic].”

None of this is high praise but it is the beginning of dialogue. And dialogue is a prerequisite for evangelization.

Providentially, Pope Francis is opening the doors of such discourse by doing what a young Joseph Ratzinger urged the Church to do as early as 1957: to “love in the present.” Pope Francis is certainly showing the world what such loving in the present looks like. And as seen in the lives of the saints, a fully present, joyful love of neighbor always attracts those who do not know Christ.

In other words, the teachings and witness of Pope Francis at World Youth Day have shown a generation of young Catholics how to personally charge into their own worlds and embrace the people that they meet—to go and make disciples.

The Requirements of Discipleship

“[Jesus] offers us the possibility of a fulfilled and fruitful life; he also offers us a future with him, an endless future, eternal life. But he asks us to train, ‘to get in shape,’ so that we can face every situation in life undaunted, bearing witness to our faith. How do we get in shape? By talking with him: by prayer, which is our daily conversation with God, who always listens to us. By the sacraments, which make his life grow within us and conform us to Christ. By loving one another, learning to listen, to understand, to forgive, to be accepting and to help others, everybody, with no one excluded or ostracized. Dear young people, be true ‘athletes of Christ’!” — Pope Francis. Closing vigil, World Youth Day, 2013.

 This going forth to evangelize first requires times of solitude, prayer, and especially the grace of God. As Christ alternated between a private life of prayer and his very public ministry, Pope Francis does the same and he exhorts his flock to do likewise. And so as in previous World Youth Days, events in Rio were punctuated with times for prayer, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

While the pontiff may be better known for his extroverted activities, he is very much a man of interior and communal prayer. We see this, for instance, in his frequent stops at Marian shrines and in his daily morning Masses with the community in which he lives. This tells us something of a theme he offered at World Youth Day. He stressed that our ability to be authentic disciples of Jesus Christ comes from our relationship with God, a relationship that we first learn most especially from our families.

On Friday’s Feast of Joachim and Anne, Pope Francis spoke at the Angelus, noting “[h]ow important grandparents are for family life, for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society! How important it is to have intergenerational exchanges and dialogue, especially within the context of the family.” 

By linking faith and the family, Pope Francis taught a generation raised in a world growing accustomed to broken families that the activity of going forth requires nurturing the bonds within our own families—especially with our elders, who have unique insights into mysteries of life and relationships with God. 

Joy: A Fruit of the Holy Spirit

“We need a Church capable of accompanying [people] on the road back to Jerusalem! A Church capable of helping them to rediscover the glorious and joyful things that are spoken of Jerusalem, and to understand that she is my Mother, our Mother, and that we are not orphans!” — Pope Francis to the bishops of Brazil, World Youth Day, 2013.  

On Sunday morning on Copacabana beach, some three million young people gathered in what may be one of the most unexpected and impressive images of Catholic joy. In a place often known for its hedonism, the Acts of the Apostles came alive in the unbridled joy that surged through the pilgrims present at World Youth Day. This joy was the presence of the Holy Spirit, transforming minds and hearts and, ultimately, human history.

It is this joy that Pope Francis asks us to show the world by first growing in a holiness that comes only from God—uniquely so through the sacraments.

Of course, Christian joy is not like the false pleasures offered by the utopian promises of the twentieth century or by New Age spiritualties. The Christian joy of World Youth Day—especially on Sunday morning—was present because hundreds of thousands first received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and walked the Way of the Cross; it was present in such strength because over two million people knelt in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.

As Pope Francis noted in his remarks at the vigil, Copacabana Beach became something of a training ground for a young Church militant who has not forgotten both the need for forgiveness and the Cross of Christ. On the prior evening, during his remarks after the Way of the Cross, the pontiff reinforced this theme by saying that “[o]nly in Christ crucified and risen can we find salvation and redemption. With him, evil, suffering, and death do not have the last word, because he gives us hope and life: he has transformed the Cross from an instrument of hate, defeat, and death into a sign of love, victory, and life.”

Here it is helpful to remember that the pope emeritus and Bl. John Paul II, who had both been influential during the Second Vatican Council, sought to insure that the Church’s readings of the Council’s documents remained mindful of core Christian realities—most notably the Cross. In doing so, both would help frame the catechesis that would eventually form the faith of today’s young Catholics.

For instance, when commenting in the late 1960s on the Council’s teachings on revelation, Joseph Ratzinger’s wrote that one could 

scarcely suppress the question as to whether the Council did not start from an over-optimistic view in its account of revelation and salvation history, losing sight of the fact that divine salvation comes essentially as a justification of the sinner; that grace is given through the judgment of the cross and thus itself always retains the character of judgment.

Benedict XVI may not have been able to attend World Youth Day 2013 in person but he certainly had an impact on it: Decades after he wrote those words, the cross is the central element of every World Youth Day and was quite prominent at Rio.

And now, the World Youth Day cross will begin its journey to Krakow, Poland for the next assembly of the young and not so young in 2016. While much will happen in the life of the Church between now and then, we know this: in Rio, a global gathering of young Catholics witnessed what happens when one lives the love and joy of proclaiming Christ crucified and risen. Now if they choose to go and proclaim likewise, Krakow in 2016 will likely be an immensely crowded city.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."