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World Youth Day in the UK?

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With the anniversary of the Papal Visit just behind us, phrases like 'Benedict Bounce' and 'spiritual renewal' are bound to be casually thrown around. Along with them, perhaps even a few questions about how likely it is that England will be hosting World Youth Day in the not too distant future. The inevitable hype after Hyde Park put some focus on this topic last year. A rather weird and short lived E-mail campaign added a little more, but the fact is that it's one of those topics that keeps coming back around. After all, we're the only major European country never to have hosted it, and the temptation of giving it a go, combined with the inevitable boost it would give our youth services, are both quite a carrot.

We've always avoided discussing this issue in the past, but with the anniversary of the Pope's visit, it's worth putting down a few scribbles. Firstly, because our position on the issue (mine in particular) has often been wildly misrepresented, and secondly because, well, if you can't beat 'em - the speculators, that is - you'd better join 'em. Turns out, we're not immune to bandwagons either!

In my view, it would be great to have a World Youth Day in England, but it shouldn't be a priority. There is more important work to do before we get to that stage and, in any case, World Youth Day will be great wherever it happens. That's the short version, anyway. For the long one, strap in... 

So, could we?

We couldn't do it as easily as many people seem to think. Our youth services infrastructure would need strengthening. CYMFed would clearly take the lead, in harness with a senior cleric appointed by CBCEW - but, as good as they have been this past few years, they would need a lot more staff and funding to make WYD happen.

It could be done. But a WYD would need more than just youth services. The infrastructure of the whole Catholic community would come in to play, as would that of the host city. Days in the Diocese would be possible, but probably not without a few arguments in getting local support. We would also probably have to draw in diocees from much further afield than just England & Wales. The fifty six diocees in the British Isles would come into play, as most likely would many of those in Northern France, Belgium, Holland and other countries.

We would also need a host city. London seems like an obvious choice, and it probably would be, but if the reported lack of extra capacity on the transport network proves to be a real problem for the Olympics next year, then maybe not. Or at least, any planned WYD-UK may be delayed until the new transport links are finished in a decade or so.

We don't usually think of looking outside the capital when we think about the UK hosting events, but it's worked well for other countries. Let's imagine a WYD in Manchester or Liverpool? At first glance, maybe not, but as a Koeln 2005 style triumvirate between Liverpool, Manchester and Preston it could work well. Massively Catholic area. Three cities. Lots of towns in between. Plenty of venues in the sticks for a big Mass. Two big airports, with Birmingham only an hour away, and several more just a bit further.

Where are we then?

So, yeah, we could do it. And, let's face it, we probably will one day. If it happened after Rio, in 2016 (or whenever) I know the youth ministry community would get right behind it, and I know we would make it rock. Don't think that the youth ministry community wouldn't be on board if the powers that be decided to go that way. But, the big question is whether we should campaigning for it as a priority right now, and I would argue that we shouldn't.

What organised pressure there has been for a strong WYD-UK bid hasn't come from youth ministry, but from other parts of the Catholic community. In keeping with the Modus Operandi of this site, I won't name names, but I will say that the pressure that has been exerted has seemed to represent a lack of what you might call youth ministry joined up thinking. Instead of coming from a sound and well thought out plan to minister to young people in the long term and to serve the world with a powerful event, the campaigns and efforts seem to have been rather more self-serving. WYD-UK has been seen as a commodity to boost other agendas or initiatives. And if there's one thing that youth ministers - and young people - really don't like, it's when people swoop in to youth ministry to tick one of their own boxes and swoop back out again. 

I would never say that those not involved in youth ministry don't get to comment or have ideas. They do, of course. Youth ministry is the work of the whole Church and the whole Church should be able to have a say. What I will say though is that to get your youth ministry ideas adopted, you at least have to understand them. You have to know what you are asking and why. You have to know what resources are involved, and you have to be able to explain how your idea will sustain young people in their faith in the long term. And that, for me, is where the real problem with any WYD-UK campaign lies.

Grass roots

One thing I have detected lately is a slight reticence about what you might call a big event mentality. It's a reticence coming from a number of different groups, many of whom don't normally see eye to eye. The reticence isn't a disliking for big events, but perhaps a feeling that we are prioritising them over what you might call grass roots work. Awesome things are happening in big fields like Lourdes, Hyde Park, Madrid, Soul Survivor, Medj, and the many others. Young people get back home full of enthusiasm, they take that enthusiasm back to their Catholic parishes (as we always tell them to) and, well you know the rest: There's nothing to sustain them week by week, Sunday by Sunday. Faith simply can't be sustained year by year. There's too much going on between summers.

Big events without grass roots youth ministry, don't work. Grass roots stuff without big events, though, does. Okay, not quite as well, but it does. Big events are only ever there to give a boost to everyday life, and if they're the only thing on offer, they build extremely weak foundations.

In the Gospels, Jesus had his big event moments. The feeding of the 5,000; the sermon on the mount. Peter and Paul had them too. But if you read most of what Jesus taught, and if you read the New Testament from Pentecost onwards - when they were talking to Christian communities about how to be Christian communities - what's prioritised far more heavily is that week by week support. That presence walking beside people through each day of normal life. And it's the same today. That's why in his addresses and homilies in Madrid the Holy Father spoke mostly about everyday life.

It is precisely that everyday life that matters most to youth ministry. The big events point toward that, sustain that, and serve that. Never the other way round.

Groups within groups

At this point in the discussion somebody normally chirps up and says that there is already a week by week thing for young people: it's called Sunday Mass (cue smug grin, as though we've never heard that one before). It would take another article to answer that (indeed one I've already written, and lost when the old site crashed) so let me give the short answer: every parish in the world, bar none, already has that particular youth programme running. Is it working? Ya think?

Nobody would argue that young people should be separated from the rest of the community. But any decent youth minister would argue that a little streaming done to help young people better engage with the mainstream life of the parish, and to tackle the particular issues faced by youth, is no bad thing. Indeed, it's a very necessary thing. Some would argue that youth groups, as such, aren't the best approach to this grass roots provision - that too, is another article - but either way, a parish needs to focus on its youth by doing more than simply handing them a list of Mass times.

Look where we're at

The last few years in this country have seen a real revival for Catholic youth ministry. The rise of CYMFed and the Papal Visit have seen to that, and with events like Flame just around the corner, that momentum looks to be gathering pace. We should be using that momentum to build up youth ministry at local levels. We should be trying to provide a decent local youth ministry project to any young person who searches for one - and indeed, for the ones who don't yet know that they're searching for one. Once we've done that, we can start to think about bringing World Youth Day to the UK. Putting a huge amount of resources into a bid - let alone actually running the thing - would be premature without that building block in place first.

World Youth Day will be great wherever it is. It will fire up the youth of the world and leave a lasting legacy to its host country. If we're going to bring it to the UK we need a better reason than just simply because we think its our turn. We need a strong culture of youth ministry which will both allow for an amazing event to be built, and provide for its continuation locally.

[image hotlinked from Flickr user Liline sur Flickr]

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