WYD pilgrims: what draws them in?

A pilgrim prays at WYD13 in Brazil. Photo: CNS
A pilgrim prays at WYD13 in Brazil. Photo: CNS

In the coming days, about 2700 Australians will make the pilgrimage to World Youth Day XXXI in Kraków, Poland, joining thousands of other Australians who have made a similar trek to the international gathering in previous decades. Since its inception, Australians have participated in each of the international WYDs, and this participation has grown and diversified throughout the event’s history.

During the early history of WYD, pilgrims were often not part of a larger formal delegation but travelled individually or with family groups. In some instances they were already in Europe as backpackers, heard about the event and attended.

As awareness of the event grew among Australian Catholics, so too did their level of participation. Smaller youth and parish groups, and ecclesial movements continued to attend but they were joined by larger diocesan contingents, as well as some university groups. Many of the Church’s ethnic communities, as well as lay movements associated with religious orders, also began to be involved.

The increased participation was motivated by the public encouragement and support of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and local diocesan authorities, and the work of a national WYD organising committee. Perhaps the most significant factor, however, described by some as a ‘watershed moment’, was the influence and impact of an Australian city hosting WYD.

With the occasion of WYD XXIII in Sydney in 2008, Australians had unrestricted access to what American papal biographer, Catholic commentator and Catholic Weekly columnist George Weigel described as “one of the signature events of the Catholic Church around the world”. WYD was no longer an experience restricted to a relatively small number of pilgrims, or an event to be learned of vicariously.

Rather, the international gathering in Sydney involved thousands of grassroots Catholics from around the country, attracted a high level of community engagement, and raised the profile of WYD for all Australians.

At the time, the event’s principal organiser, and now Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, reflected, “the principal long-term effect of WYD08, it is hoped, will be an evangelical one: a wider and deeper spreading of the Gospel”. He added that there was a need to build on the legacy of WYD08 and harness the energy of the event for the ongoing renewal of the Church in Australia.

As a result of the Sydney experience, WYD became a popular cultural reference point for many young Catholics. Teenagers in particular have had a growing interest in the event and this is evident in the increased numbers of school-aged pilgrims who attended WYD in Madrid in 2011 and Rio de Janeiro in 2013, and who will now travel to Kraków.

Since WYD in Sydney in 2008, the demographic profile of Australian pilgrims has changed markedly. This is borne out in the fact that the largest single Australian delegation to attend each of the most recent WYDs has come from Sydney Catholic Schools. These young people and their teachers and priests have also been joined by a growing number of student groups from other dioceses.

The significant growth in the number of younger pilgrims attending WYD was a core motivation for my doctoral studies. This research explored why young Australians are drawn to WYD and how the events of the international gathering and its associated pilgrimages are viewed by them.

My doctoral research found that a diversity of factors underpins peoples’ motivation to go to WYD, some responding to multiple influences, whereas others are motivated by one core purpose. WYD pilgrims can be motivated by personal, social, spiritual or religious reasons.

Some respond to the influence of a defining human characteristic, the search for meaning, others to the influence of those closest to them. Many are drawn by the ‘charismatic authority’ of the pope, others by the possibility of connectedness with strangers. Many give priority to the pilgrimage and the meaning to be drawn from it, others to the events of WYD week itself.

The research found that many of the school-age pilgrims were motivated by the ‘social’ dynamics and possibilities of WYD. They often referred to travel, connecting with others and making new friends. In contrast, for adult pilgrims the perceived benefits of the WYD experience were religious in nature. They referred to deepening their relationship with God, feeling part of the wider Church and having time for spiritual reflection.

Notwithstanding this, a dichotomy did not exist between those with spiritual inclinations and those with touristic motivations. Rather, the research pointed to the adage coined by Turner and Turner that, “a pilgrim is half a tourist if a tourist is half a pilgrim”, and people spoke comfortably and passionately about their mixed motivations.

My interviews with WYD pilgrims highlighted their desire to connect with others and find a sense of belonging. They were not only concerned with making new social friends but hoped to connect with other young people through shared experiences, and by celebrating their faith together.

For many young people, WYD offers a contrast to their normal experience of Church. Some look to the international gathering as potentially a cathartic experience, a time when they might feel comfortable in expressing and sharing their faith with others and, in some instances, feeling proud of their faith.

The event provides an opportunity whereby they can be supported by a critical mass of like-minded believers, who share the same core values. For many this is not just reassuring and comforting, but serves to strengthen the plausibility of their beliefs and practices.

The desire to share faith in a social network of like-minded peers was a common hope for many of the WYD pilgrims I interviewed, especially for those whose closest friends held different views of religion. One student pilgrim commented:

“My friends are not anti-religious, but they just don’t do it and don’t believe in it at all, which is a bit of a bummer … because obviously if you have your friends at the same side as you then that would make it easier.”

When asked what motivated him to register for WYD, another student pilgrim said:

“Just the experience of being with people of the same faith, and they’re my age group as well, and like knowing, that there are a lot of other kids that are in the same situation as me.”

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