I was pretty surprised to see a post on Twitter suggesting that "World Youth Day brings out the worst in people." It linked to a blog post on US Catholic about hostility that the Madrid World Youth Day events aroused in some people. Even some priests complained that these massive biennial gatherings siphon off too many resources with only vague benefits. WYD, in other words, should at least try to be about doing social justice projects, especially since so many of the young people are affluent enough to actually attend an international gathering.
There is plenty of merit in the suggestion that WYD include, perhaps in a more formal way, a concrete service tie-in. As it is, many of the groups who attend do organize around service projects in the host country, or (as one Jesuit commenter on the US Catholic site mentioned) as a lead-up. He wrote: "From France and Africa to Spain and Portugal, more than 3000 Magis pilgrims have been feeding the poor, comforting the elderly, building housing for the homeless, working with people of other faiths, and walking thousands of combined kilometers in preparation for World Youth Day. Magis is but one group among hundreds that sees the gathering in Madrid not as a singular event, but as the culmination of a pilgrimage towards a common celebration of faith." It seems to me that for the Denver WYD there was also a well-planned service component for those who arrived early. (And Denver WYD kick-started a new flowering of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the US, too: so the service continues!)
To insist, as some seem to be doing, that WYD is not really valid unless it has an immediate contribution to make in terms of the works of mercy seems to me a kind of materialism. WYD is less a "vacation" than a form of retreat. Pope Benedict was the wise retreat master, encouraging the retreatants to return to their "everyday life" with something new: a greater openness to God's will in their lives; a sense of discernment with regard to their vocation; a commitment to frequent prayer and adoration. No form of Christian service can be sustained without those qualities, anyway: it will either cease to be Christian or cease its service.
Fortunately, the young people, all 1.5 million of them, seemed to get that. Let's pray that the Pope's words and the experience of World Youth Day 2011 will begin a new Pentecost for all who took part!
Also on World Youth Day Madrid:
World Youth Day: the big picture *
Avatar of secularism faces blow-back for pro-papal line
Pope's Press Conference en route to Madrid
Pope speaks of how WYD responds to young people's best desires
* Thanks to Ashley Collins for posting this on Google+ yesterday.