This summer has been a very busy one for Pope Francis and the church. Adding to all this news was World Youth Day held in Lisbon, Portugal. Last held in 2019, the event — often nicknamed the “Catholic Woodstock” — was initiated by Saint Pope John Paul II in 1985.
The concept of World Youth Day has been influenced by the Light-Life Movement that has existed in Poland since the 1960s, where Catholic teens celebrated a “day of community” during youth camp retreats. This has morphed into the five-day event that ended yesterday.
The journalists in the mainstream press have never known what to do with this event. This is, after all, a positive gathering that brings together millions of people, mostly young Catholics. This is not an everyday thing. It shows young Catholics happy to embrace the church, while celebrating its teachings — a stark contrast to the secular world and the messages of hopelessness and sin we get each day.
As a result, the mainstream press covers World Youth Day and the pope’s appearances through a lens of scandal and (#ShockedShocked) politics.
Doctrine, as is often the case, is simply swept aside. Anything positive that can be gleaned from the gathering of so many young people is tossed aside. World Youth Day is a snapshot of the church’s future — but you wouldn’t know it from much of the coverage of the last week. For example, going to confession (with the pope helping out) is a major part of the World Youth Day experience. Valid story?
For great — and complete — World Youth Day coverage, the Catholic press did its job, once again. Places such as Crux, The Pillar on Substack and Catholic News Agency created pages where all their stories could be found. In other words, a one-stop-shop for all things World Youth Day.
How did the mainstream media do?
Take a guess.
I understand there are different audiences to satisfy, but ignoring what’s in front of their eyes — larges masses of young Catholics excited about their faith — in favor of what I saw as negative coverage isn’t a snapshot of reality. It is, instead, a focus on what editors and journalists think their own loyal niche audiences want to read about the modern church.
Vatican News, the Holy See’s news website, featured an interview with Ana Alvez, Director of Communication of World Youth Day. This is the key piece from the article:
“WYD is for everybody,” the Head of Communication affirmed. “For people outside the Church somehow it was difficult to understand why this is for everybody.” However, the messages conveyed and their relevance is “common worldwide. Whether in Portugal or all over the world.”
With 2,500 credentials that were released to media organizations from all over the world, the challenge for them is “to transmit the joy” perceived in the encounter of young people. Something “that is difficult to explain through words, but if you see it, you feel there is something very special about this.”
The final message for all the journalists present at WYD recalled Pope Francis’ words to “speak with the heart,” from young people’s angle.
“Yesterday I was walking through Lisbon at midnight and I saw young people walking and singing in a very joyful and peaceful way. And this is something really, really special,” Alvez concluded.
The event’s ability to “transmit the joy” was lost on secular media.
Instead, we got stories about everything else, including the clergy sex-abuse scandal, political messages, the pope’s age/health and even the hot temperatures (linked to climate-change discussions).
Despite Pope Francis’ busy schedule, CBS News focused some of the early coverage on the pontiff’s remarks about the clergy sex scandal. This is what they reported:
Pope Francis is in Portugal this week for what’s been called the “Catholic Woodstock” — the church’s “World Youth Day” festival. Hundreds of thousands of young people are taking part, and while the festival is a celebration, the pontiff started his visit by confronting the dark legacy of clergy sexual abuse in Portugal.
Francis wasted no time in addressing the biggest stain on today’s Catholic Church, meeting with sex abuse survivors behind closed doors on the first day of the summit.
Arriving in Lisbon for the international celebration of faith, the pope quickly addressed the elephant in the room: A report issued earlier this year saying that nearly 5,000 minors had been sexually abused by Portuguese clergy since the 1950s.
Addressing a group of bishops, Francis blasted them for the “scandals that have marred” the church, and called for “ongoing purification,” demanding that victims be “accepted and listened to.”
This was a paint-by-numbers story if there ever was one. It focused on the ongoing sex scandal, but made space to call Pop Francis a “rockstar.”
Once the pope arrived, it was easy for the secular press to focus on Francis’ message and study his words them through the usual political lens (the usual “spot the political sound bite” game).
Regarding the pope’s first public remarks, the Associated Press opened its story this way:
LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving young people from around the globe gave Pope Francis a raucous welcome to the World Youth Day festival in Portugal’s capital Thursday, in a sign of youthful support for the 86-year-old pontiff and his calls for inclusivity and economic justice.
In a display of enthusiasm not seen since the early years of Francis’ decade-old papacy, teenagers and young adults thronged a downtown Lisbon park for the opening ceremony of the Catholic jamboree. Pilgrims ran alongside as his popemobile made languid loops through the crowd and a smiling Francis basked in their cheers.
The pope, who was hospitalized twice this year, had said he hoped to be “rejuvenated” by his five-day trip to Portugal, and it appeared as if the sun-baked crowd delivered.
Organizers estimated some 500,000 pilgrims attended the music-and-dance filled World Youth Day opening ceremony in Lisbon’s Eduardo VII park, a figure that was expected to more than double during the festival’s coming days.
Volunteers with huge water packs on their backs doled out water to keep the youngsters hydrated, an increasing concern given temperatures are expected to soar to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) by Sunday, when Francis closes out the festival with a final outdoor Mass.
Now, for a moment of Catholic analysis from the Associated Press:
Francis is in Portugal through the weekend to preside over the jamboree that St. John Paul II launched in the 1980s to encourage young Catholics in their faith. The Argentine Jesuit has picked up John Paul’s mantle with gusto as he seeks to inspire the next generation to rally behind his key social justice and environmental priorities.
On Thursday, he emphasized his call for the Catholic Church to be welcoming to all, sinners included. “There is room for everyone in the church,” Francis told the crowd, leading the young people in a chant of “todos,” which is Spanish and Portuguese for “everyone.”
“I think he is a very modern pope. I like his thoughts on many things,” Gaia Selva, 27, who traveled to Lisbon from Italy with a group of 374 members of the Salesian religious order and was in the park for the opening ceremony. “I hope his support can help us as youth but also others, to understand our religion better and to live it to the fullest.”
The story captured the enthusiasm for Pope Francis, but also built its story around issues such as social and economic justice and the environment (with LGBTQ+ implications looming in the background).
Think about this for a moment: Why not explain Catholic teachings, at the level of the Catechism even, regarding what social and economic justice means? By not doing so, the readers — especially non-Catholics and those who don’t go to church — interpret such talk as mere politics.
The New York Times offered readers another familiar message regarding recent coverage of this pontiff — his ailing health. This is a valid story and, in this case, it was linked to disturbing trends in Europe.
This is what the Times reported:
Pope Francis, deep into his 80s, slowed by illness and aware that his window for bringing lasting change to the Roman Catholic Church is closing, arrived in Portugal on Wednesday for a weeklong meeting of the world’s young Catholics, in whose hands will rest the ultimate success or failure of his vision for a more pastoral and inclusive faith.
“I am happy to have come to Lisbon, this city of encounter, which embraces many peoples and cultures, and which, in these days, is even more global,” Francis told the country’s leaders in a speech on Wednesday morning in the Presidential Palace, adding that it had become “in a certain sense” a world capital, but also “the capital of the future, because the young are the future.”
Before the visit, the pope, 86, said in video remarks that he wanted “to see a seed for the world’s future” planted in Lisbon, and warned against the church’s becoming a “club” for older people that “will die.” Upon his arrival, he urged the leaders to help realize the dreams of “young people from around the world, who long for unity, peace and fraternity.”
“It is my hope that World Youth Day may be, for the ‘Old Continent,’ an impulse toward universal openness,” he added, referring to Europe, where the church’s following has dwindled as the population ages. “Old,” Francis underlined. “Old, we can say the elderly Continent.”
This focus on age and health was followed up by words about the enormity of the event, economic justice — that term again — and a smattering of issues that have divided the church and a focus for political progressives. Here’s a sample of that:
The gathering is expected to attract about a million people from more than 200 countries, many of them age 16 to 35, and many in sync with Francis’ emphasis on inequality and climate issues.
In remarks, Francis supported their protection of the environment, their campaigning for peace and economic justice, including the redistribution of enormous wealth, and countering demographic decline.
The meeting will also be attended by more than 700 bishops and 20 cardinals. The gathering comes as Portugal grapples with an exploding clerical sexual abuse crisis and as Francis prepares to tackle issues like the role of women and L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics in the church at a major meeting of the world’s bishops that will for the first time include women and laypeople.
At the same time, this summer’s heat wave that has engulfed much of the United States and Europe was also part of this year’s World Youth Day coverage.
Reuters, for example, did a story on it. This is what they reported:
LISBON, Aug 5 (Reuters) — Under a burning sun, hundreds of thousands of Catholics battled on Saturday to keep cool with water sprays, fans and improvised tents at a massive shadeless outdoor venue in Lisbon where Pope Francis will hold an evening vigil.
Francis arrived in Lisbon on Wednesday for a week-long series of events surrounding World Youth Day, a large gathering of young Catholics that takes place every two to three years in a different city.
Temperatures on Saturday reached 38 Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit) in Lisbon but were expected to rise to 41C on Sunday, the last day of Francis’ visit, according to the state weather agency. August is usually the hottest month of the year in Portugal.
Friday’s vigil will take place on the riverside Parque Tejo, a new venue covering 100 hectares (250 acres) created for the event. It has no trees or shade structures, but organisers set up fountains for participants to refill their water bottles and gave them hats.
Francis will celebrate a Mass at the same venue on Sunday.
“The whole area has no shade at all,” 49-year-old Luisa Vieira, from the Portuguese island of Madeira, said after one of her friends had to receive medical care due to the heat. “It’s very hot.”
I’m not going to argue that a story about the weather isn’t important. It is, especially at an event where so many people are gathered outside. But is that the strongest news hook here?
Given the overall context of World Youth Day’s importance, it would have served readers more if the focus had been more on the youth that attended the five-day event rather than covering Pope Francis like he’s a political leader (again, #ShockedShocked).
MAIN IMAGE: World Youth Day 2023 logo via the Vatican website for the laity and family life.