I’ve had a history of dropping myself into controversy through my observations on how the press cover World Youth Day.  I’m reluctant to open this again, but feel I must, because WYD is one of the highest-profile things the Catholic Church does.  It is a major draw to the World’s media, and I’d simply be professionally remiss if I didn’t weigh in.

WYD serves so many purposes because it exists at the formative edge of some major tropes of public religion.  These events draw a multicultural crowd of eager youth, thus breaking the received trope of the lassitude of “youth today,” and their reticence regarding traditional religion.

The media thus love them because they are actually news.  And, they are positive news of religion.  The Church loves them because they are a “feel good” story in comparison with much of the coverage it has recently (like over the past twenty years!) gotten.

So, much of the story is like this example from the Associated Press.  Its not actually on the site of the event itself (Rio) but covers the motivations and interests of youth from across Latin America.

The hope for the church expressed in this story is the one articulated more clearly in this far more in-depth story from the New York Times, that somehow WYD, being held in Latin America, and featuring the first Pope from that region, will somehow stem the tide of erosion in attendance and afiliatin the church has experienced there over the past twenty years.  As the Times article notes. at the time of John Paul II’s first visit to Brazil, that country was over 90% Catholic, today that figure is 66%.

The Times piece goes into great detail about the situation, pointing out that the majority of this has been a shift to Protestantism, with the neo-Pentecostal churches benefiting the most.  But it falls back into traditional tropes of the situation by focusing on the issue of whether a new Pope from the region, and one who is more sympathetic to Liberation Theology (though clearly not a supporter of it) might somehow change things.

The most hopeful expert quote articulates this near the end of the piece.

After having just spent three months in Brazil researching the media and religion there, looking particularly at the Pentecostals, I’d urge caution with such predictions.  What has happened is not just that somehow the Catholic brand has been damaged by scandal or that Pentcostals have stolen large swaths of the Catholic population by conjuring tricks.

No, what has happened is that the population as a whole, and the Pentcostals in particular have become far more individualistic and independent in their thinking about faith.  Evidence of this is in that in the latest Brazil census, the fastest-growing religion category is “none.”

And, those Pentecostals really have become Protestant.   They want to make their own decisions without clerical intervention, and they see their faith as enabling positive action in the neo-liberal marketplace of globalization, rather than as something that can enoble them in their poverty.  It is unclear that the Catholic church can re-center itself in their lives when so much of their religious life is focused on the public expression, through the media, of the triumph of the Gospel of prosperity.

WYD is good press for the church.  It is an authentic moment for its participants, clerical and youth alike.  But in order to change the fortunes of the Catholic church in Latin America, more, much more, would have to happen.