World Youth Days test the limits of ageing popes

At a press conference just hours after Pope Francis underwent a surprise hernia operation in June, an immediate concern was whether the 86-year-old would be cleared to travel to Portugal in August for World Youth Day (WYD).

Aug 11, 2023

From left: Pope John Paul II celebrates World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002 (CNS); Pope Francis speaks to young people in a video message released June 22, 2023, ahead of World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal (CNS screenshot/Courtesy of Holy See Press Office); Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead a World Youth Day prayer vigil in Madrid in 2011 (CNS/Catholic Press Photo/Alessia Giuliani).

By Christopher White
At a press conference just hours after Pope Francis underwent a surprise hernia operation in June, an immediate concern was whether the 86-year-old would be cleared to travel to Portugal in August for World Youth Day (WYD).

When Francis landed in Lisbon on August 2 for the 42nd international trip of his decade long papacy and for his fourth WYD, he demonstrated that, despite serious health setbacks over the last year, he intended to press ahead with his agenda.

But similar to his two most recent predecessors, he will also inevitably have to confront the reality that WYDs — major gatherings of Catholic young people from around the globe every few years — test the limits of aging pontiffs.

In 2002, when a frail Pope John Paul II landed at Toronto’s Pearson airport for WYD there, he stunned onlookers and his handlers alike by walking down the steps of the plane himself. In the months leading up to the trip, there was much speculation over whether the Pope, who had Parkinson’s disease, would even be able to make the trip.

The ailing pontiff acknowledged that he was “old” when speaking to young people, but the roar of their chants of “JPII, we love you” managed to reinvigorate the 82-year-old Pope and WYD founder.

After John Paul’s arrival in Canada, he spent four days resting on nearby Strawberry Island before officially arriving to take part in WYD festivities — a strategy repeated by an 81-year-old Pope Benedict XVI when he arrived in Australia for Sydney’s WYD in 2008.

Despite their advanced ages and various physical limitations, both popes managed to rise to the occasion, using their WYD appearances not only to energise a new generation of Catholics, but also to rejuvenate themselves.

In Toronto in 2002, John Paul — who at that point in his papacy struggled with speech — managed to deliver the speeches himself, despite plans to have an aide deliver them on the Pope’s behalf.

At Madrid’s 2011 WYD, the then-84-yearold Benedict refused to leave the stage — and the young people present — when a thunderstorm knocked out the electricity and temporarily halted the event. His spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, would later describe that moment as a metaphor for Benedict’s entire pontificate.

But WYD also loomed large in Benedict’s decision and timing to resign the papacy, knowing that he was physically unable to continue travelling and wanting a new pope to be in place in order to make it to the 2013 WYD in Rio de Janeiro.

At 86, Francis is now the oldest pope to ever preside over a WYD celebration. Despite his recent surgery and struggles with mobility, his schedule for Lisbon was jam-packed with more events than his past trips over the last year — including a total of 11 speeches over five days and a trip to the country’s popular Marian shrine of Fátima.

Francis has repeatedly said that getting out of the Vatican is what gives him life, and with plans to travel to Mongolia at the end of August and to Marseilles, France, at the end of September, it’s clear the Pope doesn’t want to stop travelling.

But since returning to the Vatican following his surgery, he has also shown signs that he’s in a hurry. At the beginning of July, he appointed his long-time theological adviser, Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, as the new head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, a move meant to shore up his curial reforms with a renewed emphasis on pastoral theology.

A week later, he made the surprise announcement that he would create 21 new cardinals in September, further cementing his imprint on the College of Cardinals. And all of this will take place on the eve of the closely watched October Synod of Bishops, which is likely to also be another legacy defining moment for his pontificate.

While the charismatic Francis was undoubtedly in his element in Lisbon as he fed off the energy of the young people there, it’s not hard to imagine that in the back of his mind he might have also be wondering whether he would be present at the next WYD — and what all he might want to accomplish before then.--NCR

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