World Youth Day brings out the worst in people

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

On the heels of yesterday’s post by Bryan Cones about priests in Spain protesting the lavish spending on World Youth Day during times of economic hardship, things are getting ugly in Madrid.

Reuters today released these photos of protestors (not the aforementioned priests, thankfully) who are clearly getting out of hand. People burning World Youth Day flags? Hurling insults at a nun? Shouting in the faces of people praying? This isn’t quite the spiritual environment the pilgrims attending World Youth Day had been counting on.

To make matters worse, it isn’t just the anti-WYD crowd that is causing trouble. Police arrested (and later released) a suspect who had threatened retaliation against those protesting the pope’s visit. And in the skirmish that erupted on Wednesday, complete with police in riot gear, eight were arrested and 11 were injured.

There’s no way to condone violent or disrespectful behavior from people on either side, but it is worth taking a look at what lies at the root of this strife. With so many people out of work, struggling to feed their families, and faced with great financial obstacles, should we really be spending so much money on World Youth Day?

Organizers of the event are claiming it will pay for itself, and as others have pointed out, an influx of consumers in Madrid can’t be bad for the local economy. But when the church has the power to draw so many young people to one location, couldn't they also do something to give back to the community that is hosting them?

I recently spoke to a youth minister about who would be going to WYD from his diocese, and he mentioned that most of the group, as in years past, were from families with plenty of expendable income. He lamented the fact that the high cost of the trip excludes many more young people from attending, and although some find clever ways to scrape together the funds to make the pilgrimage, getting sponsorships and raising money for what is essentially a personal vacation is a tough sell.

“It’s not like they are going on a service trip, where they can rally people behind a cause,” he said.

But what if they were? World Youth Day is an incredible opportunity for young people to experience the universality of the church and to achieve personal spiritual growth, which certainly has its merits. But at the same time, it seems to overlook our Gospel call to put the needs of others before ourselves.

I doubt it would sacrifice the personal dimension of WYD if part of the mission for those who attended was to somehow serve the local community. For those who can already afford the trip, it would give them a reason to raise more money, and for those who can't, it would provide a cause on which to base their fundraising. The result may be an even larger--crowd, and one that locals would welcome.

At the very least, it is something for World Youth Day organizers to consider when planning their next gathering. And maybe next time, attendees can feel safe even if they don't pack their flak jackets.