World Youth Day in South Africa?
Every three years the Catholic Church shows that it is still relevant to young people who come from all around the globe to attend World Youth Days in their hundreds of thousands.
For the 1,6 million young people who prayed with Pope Francis in Krakow, and the many millions of others who couldn’t go to Poland but followed the World Youth Day keenly on the news and social media, the Catholic Church clearly is still important.
World Youth Days are a tremendous tool of evangelisation and formation. Their impact lives on in those who have had the blessing of participating in them. Many share the spiritual fruits which they derived in their communities; some even go on to enter the priesthood or consecrated life.
For the Church in Poland, WYD will be a long-lasting blessing. With increasing secularisation invariably making inroads even in strongly Catholic Poland, the experience of WYD will provide a counterwitness.
The next World Youth Day will be held in Panama, a country in the middle of the Americas. Its location will be inviting to the Catholic youth from South, Central and North America. Presumably Pope Francis is of the view that these regions need an urgent injection of the evangelising spirit of WYD.
Alas, for African youth, the logistics of travelling to Panama may be complicated and expensive.
Some South African Catholics have mooted the idea of staging WYD on the southern tip of Africa, perhaps as soon as 2022.
There certainly is much to commend the idea. No WYD has been held yet in Africa, which across the continent has a fast-growing and vibrant Church. Clearly, staging a WYD in Africa is overdue.
South Africa has the infrastructure and experience to host an event of such magnitude. The successful hosting of the 2010 football World Cup showed that in organisation and facilities, this country is capable of handling big world-class events.
While South Africa has a high crime rate, it was nonetheless safe for travelling football fans. There is no reason to believe that, with due precautions in place, WYD pilgrims would be any less safe here than they were in similarly crime-afflicted Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
Holding WYD in South Africa would also galvanise a local Church that sometimes lacks in self-confidence. It might even serve to bring a still racially divided Church closer together, because all Catholic communities would have to cooperate.
However, there are also compelling arguments for caution.
Chief among those is the question of finance. The Southern African Church is not rich, and expending large amounts of its limited funds on a big event such as WYD might be seen as an extravagance, even if the intangible rewards would be great.
Should South Africa bid for WYD 2022, then the Church must have an undertaking from the government and business that the bulk of costs of hosting the event would be carried by them.
But there is another concern which must be interrogated: is our Church community ready to host the world’s youth?
Are we, as the Southern African Church, truly prepared to commit ourselves to staging such a big event? Are we ready to expend our energies in unity on such a huge project, on every level and in every area of the Church?
There is a fair concern that the disappointing number of participants in the Mini-World Youth Day in Johannesburg last December showed a lack of appetite for such events. Some dioceses didn’t bother to send delegates, and the event turned out to be an inadequate representation
of the diversity of the local Church.
The question must be asked: If South Africa’s Catholic Church shows deficient enthusiasm for a national youth day, why should it be trusted to work up a zeal for World Youth Day?
Next year’s SA youth day in Durban will have to provide a more encouraging picture of commitment to the youth by the Church’s leaders, and by the Catholic youth itself.
Africa needs to host a WYD, and South Africa is well-placed to stage such an event. But before that notion is entertained, we must be sure that as a Church we are ready to do so — in terms of both logistics and commitment to an effective youth ministry.
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