A few months ago, Fr. Christopher Jamison (Director of the National Office for Vocation) wrote an article for the Catholic Herald urging young British Catholics not to be afraid of going to Rio. It was a persuasive and well-written piece (alas, not available online) and I really hope that it hits home. World Youth Day, after all, is an incredibly powerful event, and given its clear impact on vocations to the priesthood and religious life, I can well see why Fr. Jamison is so keen to see a strong uptake.
Sadly though, I think that the uptake from the UK is going to be incredibly low. We should do what we can to support those groups and those individual young people who have a realistic hope of getting there, but in reality I think that we may also (note: also, not instead) need to focus past Rio and think about how we can turn this disappointment into an opportunity.
There are several reasons for the low uptake. The main one is that Rio is a long way from the UK (read: expensive) which means that it's going to be hard for young people to raise the money. Add to that the fact that the usual three year prep time has been shortened to two years (thanks to the World Cup having called shotgun on Rio 2014), and then factor in that we are in a time of global recession, and you start to see the problem.
That's the main problem. But there are other ones too. Rightly or wrongly there is a palpable concern about how safe Rio is and - again, rightly or wrongly - there is also a concern that the Church isn't entirely free from blame in an apparent controversy surrounding how some of the poorer residents of Rio have been shifted away from their land to make way for certain World Cup events. WYD, apparently, is planning to use some of those venues too.
Some of the people we spoke to about this are also telling us that many of the usual WYD tour operators are steering clear of Rio. The hotels in Rio are using WYD as an excuse to hike their prices up. Prices, which they are being very slow to clarify, to the frustration of tour operators, and therefore potential punters too.
One answer to the money concerns might be to look for a cheap-and-cheerful approach. I've heard it said many times that more UK groups should look into the sleeping-on-school-floors approach to WYD, and there is some merit in that. The flip side, though, is that some people just can't handle sleeping on floors for a week, especially with a hot climate and a punishing schedule. So for every pilgrim you'd gain by reducing the cost, you may well lose one by reducing the quality of the experience. Hotels don't have to have five stars, or even three or four, but there's a lot to be said for a proper bed, a warm shower and a decent breakfast. Take it from somebody who has lived and worked in the tropics: it's hard enough to sleep anyway. You need your shower, you need your breakfast, and you need a room with at least some facility for keeping the bugs away. Preferably air-conditioning, but at least a fan or net.
But then, even if the cost could be reduced, I still seriously doubt you'd get any change from a grand, even before spending money. And, again, let's not forget the timescale. It would still be more costly than Madrid - even Madrid's five star option - and it would still have afforded less than two years (far less, by the time people really got their acts together) to get to that figure.
Those tasked with working out costs on behalf of their groups will also have to plan for the unforeseen. A Diocesan youth director I spoke to last week told me that one of the reasons his diocese had decided not to go was because they had been advised that the medical services in Rio are problematic. Their group, he told me, had needed to access medical services several times in Madrid, and he knows well that the chances of a large group not needing to do so at all on a prolonged trip is extremely remote. The advice they had been given was that a premium often had to be paid for the ambulances in Rio, and that even then, the medical services out there weren't amazing.
As a group leader you have to take these things on board. Do you handle it by hiking up everybody's cost to pay for top-notch insurance? Or do you just risk it? Neither option is at all desirable, and neither is easy to sell to parents and parishes.
Indeed, the Diocesan Director I spoke to told me this in the context of a rather angry phone call he had received from a diocesan priest, demanding to know why the Diocese weren't sending a group. He (the Director) ended the conversation by asking the priest how many young people from his parish had gone to Madrid. The priest told him, and so he responded by telling him exactly how much the parish would have to raise (in just over a year, remember) if they wanted to send the same amount to Rio.
The money thing, it seems, can't easily be brushed aside by appealing to cheap-and-cheerful, or to a spirit of adventure. That just doesn't work in the days of accountability, Safeguarding, Risk Assessments and litigation!
Even if the money wasn't an issue - and it won't be for some - you still have to face the safety issue. This too, can't be brushed aside easily.
The Foreign Office travel advice page for Brazil notes that most visits are trouble free, but it also notes that levels of crime and violence are high, particularly in major cities, adding that festival and carnival periods are a time to be especially vigilant. The advice from the US State Department is broadly the same, with the important addition that foreign visitors are often particular targets.
In short, this may not be Baghdad, but the safety concerns are certainly far more real than they were in Madrid or Sydney, and the evidence seems to suggest that they are taking their toll and putting a lot of people off.
I asked contacts of mine in Canada, the US, Scotland, Germany and a few other countries about this. The responses I got confirmed my suspicion that the uptake for Rio is indeed going to be low among western nations. Too expensive. Too little time to prepare. Rio is Unsafe. It's the same song, just with slightly different accents.
In the US and Canada, the majority of diocees seem to be going, but they are bracing for much smaller groups. Many are also looking at restricting their groups to those over-18.
Here in England & Wales the picture is fairly similar. Many diocees have already ruled it out completely. Some had a go at raising a group but then cancelled it when they saw how few actually wanted to sign up. I suspect some diocees will end up going, and I also suspect that some of the new movements and other organisations will end up taking groups too. Again though, things will be pretty small-scale.
English and Welsh pilgrims are also faced with a problem of timing. The actual World Youth Day itself - the day of the big Papal Mass - is July 28th. For many schools, term only ends on Wednesday July 24th, or thereabouts, meaning that even the week in Rio begins in term time, to say nothing of Days in the Diocese. This means that the vast majority of Under-18s from the UK - even if they could find a group that would take them - would be faced the prospect of missing a chunk of school time. Some might be okay with this, but many wouldn't.
The flip-side of this is that it's actually great timing for Scotland. Scottish schools stop earlier for the summer and go back to school in mid-August, so while Madrid posed a problem for them, Rio actually fits nicely.
Despite the convenient dates though, almost half of the Diocees in Scotland have decided not to go at all, and most of the rest are either looking shaky or looking like having very small groups. A few of the bigger diocees look like they'll be going, and they also look like they'll be picking up a few strays from other places, but the uptake from Scotland will probably barely hit three figures. And, again, it will probably be largely composed of over-18s.
Even the usually very enthusiastic Australians, don't seem too taken with Rio. The Australians are usually great supporters of World Youth Day. I remember being extremely impressed with their numbers in Madrid. Even though they were literally on the other side of the world, they still had more pilgrims there than some European countries with much larger populations. A quick scan of diocesan youth service sites down under doesn't yield much evidence of enthusiastic groups working hard to prepare and raise money. Most sites make no mention of Rio. One of those that does notes that planning is still at an early stage and that they are taking expressions of interest, but not yet formal applications. I suspect they're going to find it's a bit late for that!
Make no mistake, uptake from first world countries is going to be low.
World Youth Days outside Europe normally hang - at least where numbers are concerned - on how Catholic the local area is. By that measure, I'm sure numbers will be healthy. At the very least, it won't be another Sydney. By all accounts, the PCL were moved to select Rio on the back of a couple of huge, successful gatherings of young people at other large Catholic events in South America. The Vatican have calculated that a lot of people will attend and they've probably also calculated that the majority of them will be South American. To be fair, why not. After all, Brazilians, Mexicans, Peruvians and their neighbours probably found it just as hard to get to Sydney, Koeln and Madrid!
But, yet, despite the fact that it's probably still going to be big, I also suspect that Rio 2013 won't be very anglophone. That's no bad thing, of course, but you do have to wonder how accessible it will be to the English speaking pilgrims who do make the effort. Those of us who have English as a first language are far less likely than the rest of the world to have a second or third language, and if the organisers know they're not expecting many English speakers they might reduce the amount of English used at major events. You can probably also expect less in terms of English speaking catechesis and other events too.Yet more factors, which might put off would-be pilgrims from around these parts!
And, so, there we have it. A great World Youth Day, but without too much interest from English-speaking western nations.
We're not saying this is a good thing, just that it's probably how-is. I hope Fr. Jamison and others are successful in raising the numbers, but to be honest, I don't think that they will be, and I also think that this constitutes a challenge to be met. A challenge, perhaps, which might even yield a few opportunities along the way.
One thing we've cautioned against in the past is a Big Event Mentality, a mindset which tells us that our work is about getting young people to big events and that we're not doing our jobs properly if we don't. I'll say again that we are not against big events at CatholicYouthWork.com. I was on the core team for Flame and I've been heavily involved in World Youth Days, Lourdes pilgrimages, Taize and much besides. We're not against big events. What we are against though, is pushing big events at the expense of local provision, or pushing big events which don't properly feed back into local provision.
Last autumn at a Catholic do in London, I got talking to a key national figure. He didn't know I was going to quote him, so I'll keep him anonymous! He was talking about this big event mentality and he suggested that youth services should stop all big events and pilgrimages for two years so that they can see just exactly what's happening without them. He wasn't being serious, of course. He was making a point. A point which, with the problems surrounding Rio, might now be more pertinent than he realised.
If we are in positions where we're used to investing a lot of time and energy in WYD groups, why not use this as a chance to ask ourselves how our young people are being fed between World Youth Days? Why not take that redundant energy, resources, time, money, and focus it on what those young people have in this country for the other eleven and a half months of the year? Because, here's the thing - If the young people who would be going to WYD don't have decent local provision for their formation and pastoral care, the chances are that going to WYD wouldn't do that much for them in the long-run anyway. It would be an experience which would ultimately fade.
For me, that's a must. But for those who just don't feel complete unless they've got a big international event to work towards, here's another thought: why not start preparing now for Krakow? Okay, so we don't know for definite that it will be in Krakow (though, frankly, I'd bet a lot of money on it!) and we also don't know exactly when it will be. The chances are that it will be in Poland. The signs also seem to suggest that it will be in 2015 rather than 2016. The former represents the 30th anniversary of WYD as well as the 10th anniversary of the death of it's founder, Blessed John Paul II. The very point of going to Krakow in the first place only really works for 2015!
This means that once again, there will be a two year gap between WYD gatherings rather than three. Krakow won't cost as much as Rio, but the world economy will still be dicey twelve months from now and it will still feel like a relatively short time to raise a lot of money. At least, it will if we refuse to do anything until the Holy Father actually announces it.
There's nothing to say that you have to have an exact time and location to start generating a buzz and raising money. So, why not start planning for 'the next European World Youth Day' now?
Either way, let's not just sit around and moan about how inconvenient Rio is! The South Americans deserve a WYD, and if we chose to see this whole thing as an opportunity, we can probably do a lot of good with the next couple of years.
[image hotlinked from Flickr user Sam Paradeiro]