By Emily Bowers
No one knows how many people will be coming. There’ll be hundreds of thousands, the future of a faith shaken to its core, descending on the city like the summer heat.
For World Youth Day 2002, Toronto will play host to young Catholics from around the globe. They’ll come in all ages, races and nationalities. Settling into hotel rooms, university dorms and the spare bedrooms of benevolent locals, flocks of Catholics will come to Toronto July 18-28 for 11 days of events which culminate in the Papal Mass.
As hundreds of volunteers anxiously prepare for the week of cultural festivals, discussions and Pope sightings, WYD is being anticipated as a time for young Catholics to reconnect with the pride in their religion and church.
For people ages 18-35 — the demographic that WYD is targeting — being a Catholic is difficult. As the public perception of the often-secretive church has morphed and changed into a negative stereotype fuelled by scandals and blazing headlines, some young people lose their pride in their faith, says Father Thomas Trottier, the chaplain at St. Philip Neri House. But, he says, WYD celebrations help youth remember why Catholicism works for them.
“Something happens to a person, but you can’t pinpoint it,” he says, remembering his trip to Santiago de Compostela, Spain for WYD in 1989.
“People are afraid to live the Catholic faith freely,” he says. “[WYD] is a boost of confidence.”
And regaining that confidence is necessary. In the United States, the reputation of the Catholic Church has been decimated by shocking scandals of sexual abuse by priests against their young parishioners.
Scott Payette, current treasurer and president-elect for the Catholic Students’ League at Ryerson says there is strength in the numbers of Catholic youth who will fill up the city this summer.
“It’s nice to be around your own kind,” he says with a chuckle. “It should be very exciting.”
It’s a fresh excitement that Payette says the church sorely needs.
When, last January, the Boston Globe cracked open the story of not just decades of sexual abuse but the ensuing cover-up of the crimes, the religious and secular world reeled in shock.
Known for being an institution of guarded secrecy yet sanctity, the seemingly rampant abuse of the church’s children has been revealed as a horrific betrayal of trust. There have been as many as 2,000 priests across the U.S. accused of abuse since the initial reports started flooding in early this year.
Trottier says some Catholics, especially younger ones, have difficulty meshing their faith in with their everyday lives as they wrestle with an institution with a smeared reputation.
And as young Catholics struggle with their own beliefs and how they practice them, it seems secular society is hesitant to make a place for the deeply religious. Apart from events like WYD where the devout can band together for strength, young Christians are often the very quiet in their faith, not wanting to ruffle any feathers.
“[They’re being very careful, trying no to offend anyone,” Trottier says. “It eats away at your soul.”
But WYD helps conquer that hesitation, with the power of unity that is promised for the 10-day event.
“[You’re] in the midst of confident, joyful [people] who aren’t afraid to profess their faith,” Trottier says.
The strength that is garnered from those proud celebrations translates into confidence after WYD. Trottier says young people realize that “maybe we should always be this way.”
Kelly Pedro, 24, is a student at York University. She’s been involved in planning WYD events in Brampton for a year and a half. She says the influx of hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world will be the most exciting part of the celebrations.
“It’ll be great to meet people from all around the world.”
Pedro says the event will be a splash of the positive in so much negativity surrounding the church.
“It’ll be a good thing for the faith.”
As part of the planning, Pedro wanted to make sure the event opens its arms to people of all religions and faiths.
“We wanted to make sure it was inclusive,” she says.
That inclusion will be key to the success of the event in Toronto, a city that claims to openly embrace all faiths and ethnicities.
“We’re all hoping it’ll be a booster shot in the arm for the city,” says Payette.
World Youth Day started at the behest of Pope John Paul II, who has been known throughout his papacy as being a proponent of the power of youth. The first event was held in Rome in 1984 and in subsequent years until 1987 when it moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Over two million people attended the millennial WYD in Rome in 2002. While not as many people are expected in Toronto, as many as one million could show up. The theme for the Toronto event is a quote from Matthew, 5:13-14. “You are the Salt of the Earth … You are the Light of the World.”
Trottier is helping Ryerson students organize their volunteer efforts for WYD, including assisting disabled pilgrims — as the visitors are called — at the site throughout the week.
“We’re involved in several different projects,” he says.
St. Philip Neri House is also spearheading the presentation of several speakers throughout the week who will speak on topics including love and sex, a forum that was developed when Trottier says they realized there wasn’t a wide enough range of discussion.
“We were concerned there wasn’t going to be a pro-life presence,” he says. “[A lot] of youth come closer to the church through thinking about this.”
Keeping youth close to the church is vital now. A priests and parishioners age, the development of the faith’s younger set is key. WYD 2002 will be beneficial to the church and, Trottier says, to its young members who strive to maintain pride in the institution that guides them on their religious path.