For seven days last week the streets and squares of Madrid, Spain, were overrun by more than a million young people from all over the world. They gathered for the 26th World Youth Day (WYD), a youth-oriented event of the Roman Catholic Church.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) was officially represented by three members of its Echos Commission on Youth in the Ecumenical Movement, Diana Fernandes Dos Santos of Brazil, Mikael Giødesen of Denmark and Nikos Kosmidis of Greece.
The WYD offered the three Echos members a unique opportunity to understand the dynamics and developments of Roman Catholic youth through engaging the different movements and religious orders present there as well as discussions about issues of Christian unity.
The team were guest speakers in two ecumenical events organised jointly by the International Young Catholic Students (IYCS), the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS), Pax Romana, the Juventud Estudiante Catolica (JEC) and the WCC.
A “World Café” with the theme “Youth and the Search for Christian Unity” invited some 200 participants to discuss issues related to Christian unity, divisions in the history of Christianity, the initiatives within contemporary ecumenical dialogue, youth involvement in the life and work of the WCC.
The World Café was developed out of the youth agenda and young members of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC.
Kosmidis, an Eastern Orthodox, delivered a presentation at why Christian unity matters today, the history of the ecumenical movement and what young Christians may do together as part of their social responsibility.
In the discussion following the presentation the participants, most of whom were Roman Catholic youth representing all continents, shared their different understandings of what unity means. An even more challenging topic was raised by the group regarding the role and ministry of the pope of Rome in the worldwide church and the way his primacy was understood within the “Pentarchy” (the five major episcopal sees) of the early church.
Questions were also raised regarding the current level of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic bilateral dialogue and how young people may serve their churches in this discussion.
“We believe our event gave a different experience of WYD where youth pilgrims had a chance to share, understand and reflect deeper on ecumenism experienced among young people,” said Loucille D. Alcala, programme coordinator for the IYCS International Secretariat in Paris. “Further, it was also a space to encourage working together with different youth organisations and promote ecumenical actions at all levels.”
A second event focused on the spiritual foundations of ecumenical dialogue and how working for the unity of the church affects the faith of a young person. Dos Santos, a Methodist, and Giødesen, a Lutheran, both of whom have served as WCC stewards at international meetings, were able to share the experience of their ecumenical journey and how their lives have been changed as a result.
The WYD was started in the mid-1980s when Pope John Paul II introduced the idea of young people from all over the world gathering as a celebration of the unity of the church, the diverse expressions and the cultural pluralism of Catholicism.
John Paul hoped to promote the right of the younger generations to express their vision for the church and the world through dialogue with the church leadership and among themselves.
Following this tradition and under the theme “Rooted and Built Up in Jesus Christ, Firm in the Faith” (Col 2:7), the Archdiocese of Madrid invited the young people to meditate on their relationship with Christ and their understanding of how their faith can become a transformative power for the good of their communities.
According to the organisers, more than 1.5 million people gathered in Cuatro Vientos aerodrome Saturday to hear Pope Benedict XVI. A central moment in every WYD is the encounter of the youth with the pope during an all-night vigil leading to the Sunday morning eucharist.
A strong summer storm unfortunately prevented the pope from delivering his speech during the Saturday vigil and to participate fully in this “festival of faith”.
Despite the weather conditions and the disappointment of not hearing the pope’s address, hundreds of thousands of young people spent all night in the airport praying, singing, waiving thousands of flags and supporting each other. The pope expressed his gratitude for this.
Part of his message was made up of counsel on such issues as respect for life and marriage that have caused controversies in the political and religious life of Europe and particularly in Spain, a country with very strong Roman Catholic roots.
Some of the pope’s comments and the high costs of hosting event caused critics to protest. Some participants commented on the need for a stronger Christian response to the global finance. Nevertheless, many elements of Spanish society joyously welcomed the young pilgrims to Madrid.
In his final homily at Cuatro Vientos during the closing Sunday mass, in the presence of Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, Pope Benedict XVI appealed to young people to strengthen their faith in Christ, making Jesus Christ the centre of their existence and speaking openly to others about their faith.
“We cannot encounter Christ and not want to make him known to others,” he said. “So do not keep Christ to yourselves! Share with others the joy of your faith. The world needs the witness of your faith, it surely needs God.”
The pope announced that the next WYD will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2013, under the theme "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19, New Testament). Dos Santos, who serves as the moderator of Echos Commission, together with thousands of other Brazilian participants, welcomed the announcement and expressed her willingness to work for a wider ecumenical youth participation in the next World Youth Day.