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WYD - Media lessons from World Youth Days

August 14, 2011
What has the Church learned from the media about World Youth Days, and what has the media learned from the Church's experience of these great events?[singlepic id=80 w=320 h=240 float=right]
I cannot help but recall Cardinal James Francis Stafford's stirring words spoken to the throngs of young people gathered in St. Peter's Square and its vicinity at the opening ceremonies of the rather apocalyptic Jubilee World Youth Day Aug. 15, 2000.
Addressing a visibly moved and aging Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Stafford said, "Holy Father! These young people come as pilgrims from 157 nations. Not too long ago it was ominous when thousands of young people moved across national borders. Citizens trembled in fear. They closed and barricaded their doors. Those hosts of young men signified armies of war, instruments of destruction, plague, and darkness.
"At your initiative, Holy Father, these young men and women of Europe and of the world have formed a different kind of army. They are 'on pilgrimage from the Lord.' They reflect the beauty envisioned by you and the Fathers of the Council."
In 2002 World Youth Day hit Toronto at a very low ebb of the Church's history. The historical backdrop included the aftermath of September 11 and a world steeped in terror, fear and war; a Church enmeshed in a major sex abuse scandal in the United States with a Pontiff who was visibly aging and feeble; and a Canadian culture of religious indifference and increasing secularity.
Yet hope bloomed in the most unlikely of places as we watched an incredible journalistic potpourri erupt in secular Toronto. Of course we had the irritatingly predictable but mandatory coverage of naysayers, critics, "Catholic anarchists," condom-pushers, and the rest. How could there not be for a Catholic mega-fest?
About 4,200 journalists from over 500 media outlets descended upon Toronto. When they realized in the first days of the event that Pope John Paul II was not going to die in Canada's largest city in the midst of an international jamboree, they suddenly shifted their focus.
Some gushed with enthusiasm, pumping out eloquent and passionate prose. Others carried the requisite critical pieces filled with joyless individuals hammering the Roman Pontiff for sins real and imagined, and the very Church for daring to exist.
But in general it was a pleasure -- dare I say a miracle? -- to pick up the papers each morning that week and see that it was possible to tell the alternative story of the Church. Reporters couldn't believe what they were seeing. One of our notorious and incorrigible national newspaper reporters wrote that the Pope made "the ignoble and sacrilegious like me feel lucky" to have been a witness to his visit, admitting that she wept and grinned at the sight of him.
For all of the interviews with disgruntled Catholics, unhappy former nuns, and elderly, frustrated ex-priests and would-be Popes, there was a veritable outpouring of roses in the form of earnest, sincere attempts by journalists: commentators, reporters, photographers, broadcasters, to convey the spirit of what was happening on the streets of secular Toronto.
Our national Globe and Mail felt obliged to run a half-dozen pages or more of coverage on some days, including a full-colour centre spread of an aging, bent-over John Paul II saying Mass with his entire homily printed underneath. I have that framed and placed prominently in our Salt and Light broadcast centre. I often glance at it when we have one of those bad days with the "secular" media, knowing that there is indeed another way to tell the story.
What is really going on with World Youth Days? How can the Church use these powerful instruments of the new evangelization to transmit a message to the media?
[singlepic id=93 w=320 h=240 float=left] We are on the eve of World Youth Day 2011. Nearly 6,000 Canadians and over 26,000 American young people will be attending. There is much to be gained by a proper use of the media in Madrid during this stellar event.
World Youth Days are an indicator of a rebirth that's taking place in the Church, a rebirth that's happening as the world turns upon us. Whether we wish to admit it or not, there is a whole army of fervent young Catholics who are filled with hope.
The media, and even some within the Church, label and castigate this new army as "ultra orthodox," "papal groupies," and "deer in the religious headlights," and simply dismiss them from the current ecclesial landscape. The Toronto World Youth Day experience proved otherwise, and it was the media, the secular media, attesting to that brilliant, glaring fact.
Sydney's Cardinal George Pell said World Youth Day acts as an antidote to images of Catholicism as in decline or wracked by controversy.
"It shows the Church as it really is, alive with evangelical energy. World Youth Days do not belong to one Pope, or even one generation, but are now an ordinary part of the life of the Church. The John Paul II generation -- young and old alike -- is proud to be faithful sons and daughters of Pope Benedict."
Fr. Thomas Rosica CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
Photo Credit: CNS photo/Felix Ordonez,  handout via Reuters