It may seem a bit churlish to criticize WYD and it is not my intention to do so. In and of itself it is a benign phenomenon, and no doubt has spiritual benefits for a certain type of young Catholic. In fact one can gain a plenary indulgence for attending. We encourage any activities associated with an indulgence, so in that sense we support WYD as well. Still as we mentioned previously the data suggest for all its good intentions, WYD does not have much of an impact for youth at large. Our question is why? We think it is because stylistically it is emblematic of a particular flavor of Catholicism that cannot carry the culture.
I would call this kind of Catholicism “Youth Group Catholicism”. The problem seems to be that its appeal appears to be relatively narrow. Kids attracted to “Youth Group Catholicism” are a small segment of young Catholics. We can infer this in several ways. Georgetown University Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) did a study in 2008 which documented that among Catholics born after 1981 only 17% attend mass weekly, and only 36 % attend at least once a month. For those born pre Vatican II this number is 45% and 64%. So the younger Catholics tend avoid attend mass, it is hard to imagine them traveling to WYD. (Details of the study can be seen here .)
An older study documents only 15% of young males are characterized as “highly committed Catholics” (Parish members, attend mass regularly and say faith is important to them). That study can be viewed here .
I think then a reasonable hypothesis is that youth group Catholicism has a real but limited appeal. One might say that Catholicism itself cannot be judged based on its popularity, after all the world hated Jesus so they will hate the faithful. Yes, true enough. I would also ask does this kind of Catholicism impact the culture in some other way not measured by sheer numbers? The March for Life also only attracts a relatively small number of Catholic youth, but on the other hand it is different. It clearly antagonizes those on the opposite side of the abortion debate and indeed has affected the culture by keeping the pro-life movement alive with new more daring recruits. Can anyone imagine someone whose formation consisted of WYD behaving like the intrepid Lila Rose and her team of undercover agents at live action? The pro life movement is hated in the same way the Lord was hated. Youth group Catholicism does not inspire this kind of animosity either. It seems to be rather something that attracts a few and is largely ignored by the majority. Why is this the case? Well I will offer a theory.
Youth Group Catholicism, might be what commentator Michael Voris and others have also called “Happy Clappy” Catholicism. In it’s weirder and more overtly heretical manifestations it involves religious dance and consecrated wine served in paper cups after mass celebrated cross legged on the floor. Even in its best forms it tends to be relatively vague, offering only gauzy promises and tends to favor an approach to religion that is not challenging. Not a lot of “pick up your cross” and follow me but more Jesus “only asks us to love him, but does not say how exactly one is to “love” Jesus. ( Jesus notes that if we love him we keep his commandments. All of them, even the ones that are no fun to keep.)
“Happy Clappy” Catholicism is often appealing to those who already believe and are in search of a “feel good” kind of non-threatening religion but others…perhaps not so much. This is not to say there are not exceptions to this rule, but at its root this is the feel of WYD. I would ask what difficult sacrifice does “Youth Group Catholicism” demand or what difficult challenge does it ask the youth to take up? Interestingly it appears tends to interest young women more than young men.
By way of indication, I just looked at some random pictures of WYD in Madrid in 2011. They can be viewed here and here and here. (Ok there is a little selection bias perhaps) still one gets the sense that this is a feminine event. The organizers report that 55% of the pilgrims are women. I look think back to my buddies in high school who smoked pot and got drunk post football games at parties In the woods, or guys I knew in college or medical school who I played rugby with, afterwards everyone getting drunk and looking for loose women post rugby game ( the famed rugby queen… you guys out there who know the sport will know what I am talking about… ) and if I wanted to convince some of those kind of guys to maybe cut down on the mortal sins, and start thinking about their immortal souls… maybe start praying, this image of prayer here probably would not cut it, nor would this one here. My guess is 70% of the guys attending tolerate most of it and are looking to just see if they can get friendly with a nice single young lady, otherwise they are bored like the two gentleman about to doze off here . Granted this may be a bit of a caricature.
Still there are other elements of this event that are peculiar. It is interesting to note that Catholic news service reports that there are 4 million communion hosts available for consecration yet only 100 confessionals! 2.5 million people are projected to attend. That means there is one confessional for every 25,000 people attending. The official schedule lists 5 days for confessions this week, If a confession was heard every 5 minutes at each confessional 24/7 this would be at most 205 confessions/ day. This works out to about at most the expectation that no more than 1% of the Catholic “youth” will go to confession. If the most devout youth on the planet make a pilgrimage and do not feel the need to go to confession then something is really not right. 60% of the attendees are 19-34. It seems that among 19-34 year old people one can be tempted to any number of mortal sins. As such It is a very very different theology than historic Catholicism if 99% of any group of 19-34 year old adults are certain they are in the state of grace. This truly is reminiscent of the contrast between cheap grace and costly grace noted by the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer. Recall Bonhoffer’s description:
“cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” In contrast “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” ”
The images are suggestive and the actual preaching is instructive as well. We will look at this in some detail next.