By Allen, John L., Jr.
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 38, No. 35
An ailing but resilient Pope John Paul II arrived in Canada July 23 for his eighth World Youth Day, facing challenges that rippled out around him like waves on Toronto's Lake Ontario.
Despite the concerns, the pope has stayed relentlessly on message, urging the 250,000 young people from 172 countries gathered here to be beacons of Christian hope in the post-Sept. 11 world.
The first challenge was one that John Paul brought with him w his own declining health, which initially threatened to dominate news coverage. When the pope landed in Toronto, however, he walked under his own power down the 27 steps from his Alitalia flight rather than being moved by a lift on the other side of the plane, as has lately been the norm. The unexpected gesture largely dispelled speculation that he might collapse under the strain of the journey.
Harder to shake off, however, was concern about the health of World Youth Day itself. As the event opened, attendance projections were in Dow Jones-style free fall. Months ago organizers had anticipated 750,000, but as registrations failed to materialize, estimates were revised to 500,000, then 250,000--a reflection, they said, of Canada's distance from Catholic population centers, combined with post-Sept. 11 malaise. Others wonder, however, if some of the charm of "Wojtyla's Woodstock," as the massive World Youth Day festivals have been dubbed, is wearing off.
At the same time, an enormous crowd is expected for the July 28 concluding Mass. As NCR went to press, organizers said that TV images July 23 of an energized John Paul had produced a last-minute rush of registrations. A related worry was a cash shortfall. Each delegate paid $158 for registration, and the budget was built on the expectation of 350,000 registrations, so if the actual number is 250,000, that would mean a $15.8 million deficit. Any deficit will have to be paid off by the Canadian bishops' conference.
John Paul might also be forgiven a bit of nervousness about the Catholic church he finds in Canada. A National Post poll just before he arrived found that 82 percent of Canadian Catholics want married priests, and 80 percent women priests. To be sure, the easy-going liberalism of Canadian Catholicism is less feisty than its German or American counterparts, but no less resistant to Roman diktat.
Underscoring that point, a group of reform-minded Catholics staged a series of parallel events during World Youth Day at a nearby Anglican parish.
Given the obvious energy and good humor of the swarms of young people moving up and down the streets of Toronto, however, World Youth Day organizers seemed upbeat about how things are going.
"The story of World Youth Day is not to break records. …