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World Youth Day: participation, perils, promise and prognosis

Nuala Kenny OC, MD | Canada - Fri, Sep 29th 2023

The abuse of power, position, trust and conscience -- often denied and covered up -- has been the last straw for many who have left the Church

In his November 2021 invitation to the XXXVI World Youth Day (WYD) -- now underway in Lisbon (Portugal) until next Sunday -- Pope Francis repeated Jesus' call, "I say to you arise!" (Lk 7:14) and "I appoint you as a witness of what you have seen" (Acts 26: 16). In his Message to participants, the pope put before them Mary, who -- still pondering her astounding news -- "arose and went with haste" (Lk 1:39) to aid her cousin Elizabeth. 

The pope's monthly prayer intention for August is for youth to experience a meaningful encounter with each other and with the person of the living Christ. Arise, witness, and haste convey an urgent need for prophetic witness and missionary disciples in "these troubling times".


Some Catholics have high hopes for this WYD event and a return of the Church to a position of power and influence in society. A gathering of over a million youth could suggest that all is well. They fail to accept that in this post-Christendom even very Catholic Portugal has legalized abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, and its Church is losing members. Others are totally indifferent.

Most are in denial about the global crisis of faith for today's youth. Pope Francis says crisis help us grow. In medicine, we know crisis is a turning point toward life or death. As a woman religious and pediatrician with forty years of practice caring for seriously ill, dying, abused, and abandoned children and youth, I have been humbled by my patients' courage in trauma. I have been awed at the depth of their spiritual lives. Jesus acknowledged their spiritual sensitivity in his interactions with them.

My special interest is understanding the factors that have influenced the human development and spiritual formation of WYD participants as crucial to assessing the perils and possibilities of the youth gathering.

The convergence of the sexual abuse crisis, pandemic isolation, global violence, and environmental disasters raises critical questions about our response to the profound physical, psychological and spiritual harms of trauma to children and youth and the unique vulnerability of children.


World Youth Day is occurring at a time of loss of trust in and credibility of the Church because of the ongoing clergy sexual abuse. The devastating physical, psychological and emotional harms of the sexual abuse of minors by a trusted adult is compounded by spiritual harm when the offender is an "alter Christus". The abuse of power, position, trust and conscience -- often denied and covered up -- has been the last straw for many who have left the Church.

The Pontifical Academy for Life's review in 202 of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the lives of children and adolescents revealed an explosion of physical and sexual abuse. They lost important family, cultural and religious rituals essential to their development of identity, feelings of security and moral agency. The virtual liturgy was crucial for many but it lacked incarnational embodiment and community.

The pandemic unmasked global issues of sexual exploitation, child labor and an increase in mental health issues, suicide, loneliness and futility, as well as youth violence. It has had a disproportionate impact on families living in poverty and socially marginalized.

The emerging science of epigenetics shows our genes are influenced by trauma, which affects learning, resilience, physical and mental health, and adult productivity. The long-term consequences for youth are unknown.


In the West, youth have been raised by two generations of Church disaffiliation. Few marry in the Church, fewer baptize children or have them confirmed; there is no adult formation in the faith. Research in North America shows that "former Catholics" are the largest group after Catholics. Most who left no longer belong to any other religion and many report being agnostic or atheist. They reject the Church's position on abortion, birth control, gender studies and the role of women in ecclesial ministry and decision-making.

Generational studies of Mosaics in North America and Western Europe -- those aged eighteen to twenty-nine -- reveal these are the "nones" who are decidedly "unreligious". They have grown up in an environment of unprecedented technological, social, religious, cultural, economic change and the decline of democracy. They are comfortable with contradictory beliefs; hold a pragmatic morality of "whatever works"; believe Jesus is not essential; don't attend church after leaving home; lack a biblical worldview; have overbooked schedules and are addicted to social media.

Many (or most) parishes and dioceses have required that WYD participants be devout youth, active in Church life, and approved by the local bishop. This makes them different from the Mosaic generation as a whole.

Undeveloped and developing nations are influenced increasingly by modernity, secularism, individualism, consumerism and some of the worst of social media and North American entertainment

Participants will experience many festivities, greatly needed after pandemic constraints. This is not just another rock concert with a Catholic coating. No, it is a real pilgrimage of prayer. It will be a unique experience of today's global and diverse Church.

Polarization and division will be experienced in ongoing debates about Vatican II and between believers in the Eucharist, the source of community, as a lavish solemn spectacle to be observed and celebrants of a sacred, sacrificial meal of friends with the "full and active participation of all".


Church leadership will be challenged as they give lectures and homilies to identify the deep issues essential to reading and discerning the "signs of the times", rather than offering pious platitudes. The "influencers" of the young today are entertainment, political and economic celebrities. The timely May message of the Dicastery for Communication, Toward Full Presence,recognizes the digital world is "a significant part of young peoples' identity and way of life". It asks how we can live in the "digital world as loving neighbors".

Communicating the Good News in the era of fake news and loss of trust in the Church is difficult. Youth are bombarded by competing messages from social media, some intentionally malicious. Artificial Intelligence will compound the problem and add challenges for Christian anthropology, as the Pontifical Council for Culture identified in October 2021.      

The prognosis for a WYD contribution toward renewal of the Church depends on many things, including what happens when the young people return home to empty churches and lifeless parishes. Like the Synod, World Youth Day is not so much an event as a moment in an ongoing process of spiritual formation.

We believe in the Paschal Mystery. We know from Jesus that dying to certain ways of being Church can give the strength to overcome denial and tragedy fatigue and help us rise up to witness to God's love and the transcendent in today's world.

Nuala Kenny is a Sister of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia and a pediatrician. An officer of the Order of Canada since 1999, she has published several books, including Healing the Church (Novalis, 2012) and Rediscovering the Art of Dying (2017). She is co-author of Still Unhealed: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis (Novalis and Twenty-Third Publications, 2019). She most recently published, A Post-Pandemic Church: Prophetic Possibilities (Novalis and Twenty-Third Publications, 2021).

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