A planet united for the culture of life: the untold story of World Youth Day

One young attendee said WYD impacted even many non-Catholics and non-believers. "People want it. People are naturally inclined to live that idea, the culture of life," he said.
Mon Aug 29, 2011 - 7:43 pm EST

August 29, 2011 ( - Imagine if two million people - not twenty thousand, or even two hundred thousand, but two million - travelled from all corners of the world to unify themselves into one enormous, impassioned mass to support a shared cause - and international media paid only passing attention.

Well, that’s exactly what happened at World Youth Day (WYD) in Madrid this month, where attendees witnessed a convergence that so broadly transcended nationality, language, and skin color as to be without peer among modern-day events.

Although a Catholic event, for many WYD was much more than a gathering of young people of a particular faith, it was a stark message about the living future of conservative social values - the values that build a “culture of life” - in the next generation.

Marc Barnes, the author of the BadCatholic blog, was one of those who attended the massive event, and he has created a powerful visual documentary of the six-day event. recently interviewed the 18-year-old blogger, who plans to attend the University of Steubenville in Ohio this Fall.

“It’s not just like it’s an event. There are no youth events this big,” said Barnes. “By sheer volume, this should have been an event that was front page.”

Barnes’ video captured the spirit that united the youth in Madrid: vibrant, bubbly (maybe even a tad giddy), and - perhaps most incongruously given the hugeness of the crowd - radically orthodox.

“There was an assumption that it would be very watered-down ... because it’s just so large,” said the teen, who compared WYD to what he called the more bland religiosity of the thousands-strong National Catholic Youth Conference. “But at World Youth Day, gosh - it was intense, it was orthodox, and the graces that were flowing for everyone.

“The whole place was filled with miracles.”

The tenor of joy in Madrid didn’t stop an influx of negative news coverage: many reports highlighted the secular and gay rights protesters, or politicized some aspects of the event, such as Pope Benedict XVI’s granting permission to WYD confessors to welcome post-abortive women back into the Church.

“Pope dangles ‘fruits of divine grace’ to excommunicated Catholics who admit to terminations,” read one Guardian subtitle, after which the article went on to state that the papal event “throws into relief the divisions between old Catholic and new liberal Spain.”


“Catholics may listen respectfully to what the pope has to say about contraception, but they will stick without hesitation to their favourite brand of condoms,” wrote Miguel-Anxo Murado on the same paper’s blog. “It’s not by influencing the public, but by lobbying the government, that the church operates nowadays.”

Some conservatives complained about other media distortions exaggerating the influence of protesters and the event’s “lavish” quality.

“To set the record straight, in case you were successfully spun: World Youth Days is not a luxurious party for a megalomaniacal octogenarian that drains a different nation’s economy every three years,” wrote Christopher Stefanick, youth director for the Archdiocese of Denver, at the Catholic News Agency.

While the secularization of Spain cannot be doubted - the country has allowed abortion-on-demand since 2010 and gay “marriage” since 2005 - witnesses of the event appeared to encounter little in the way of divisiveness, and painted a more hopeful picture.

Barnes said WYD seemed to impact the surrounding community, not by sparking arguments, but by eliciting a desire for long-lost social values.

“People want it. People are naturally inclined to live that idea, the culture of life,” said Barnes. “The topics would come up. It would always be about stuff like contraception, stuff like gay marriage, stuff like abortion - it would be those issues.

“And there was a clear desire ... maybe not ordered to any specific goal, that would be asking a lot, but a clear desire for a better way.”

The positive impression, he said, transcended the “Catholic” label, and seemed to move even nonbelievers. “It was powerful to me to see people affected who really didn’t even agree with the message,” said Barnes, who recalled a particularly moving conversation with an atheist at a bar.

“He got kind of teary because he was saying, ‘I don’t believe this, but the pope is going to come and he’s going to talk to you all about love.’ And he talked about how that was such a meaningful thing to him, even though he didn’t understand it.”

Though at times difficult to see - for many, he was never more than a white speck - everyone knew what figure had brought together the broad sea of pilgrims, and served as its center.

Pope Benedict XVI, who exhorted youth to “share with others the joy of your faith” in his homily before the massive crowd Sunday, was the clear object of affection: Barnes’ videos capture the thrill that runs through a gaggle of teenage girls as the elderly pontiff drives by.

To a Catholic blogger immersed in the youth culture - Barnes calls himself a product of the public school system - that particular phenomenon is telling.

“It would have been an easier argument to say that John Paul ‘brainwashed’ us, because that guy was incredible. That guy was a stud,” he said. The current German pontiff is a different story.

“He’s kinda nerdy. He’s very cute as a guy, but he’s not - he’s very shy, he’s very quiet, he’s a little awkward in his movements ... the idea that young people could be ‘brainwashed’ by someone that looks and acts like Pope Benedict ... there has to be something else going on there,” he said.

“That doesn’t make sense unless it’s not about the person, but it’s about the faith.”

  benedict xvi, catholic, world youth day

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