Pope Francis has the chance to repair Catholicism at upcoming World Youth Day

(COMMENTARY) The attention of the Catholic world will be on Panama next month when the Central American nation hosts World Youth Day, an event that remains a major part of Saint Pope John Paul II’s legacy.

Started in 1985 and influenced by the “Light-Life Movement” that began in the then-pope’s native Poland two decades earlier, World Youth Day has allowed the church to spread its message directly to young adults who eagerly gather to celebrate as a community. It is that spirit and tradition that accompanies World Youth Day each time it is held somewhere in the world. The five-day event, which starts on Jan. 22, will be a real chance for Pope Francis to try and set things right following a very difficult 2018 for him and the church as a whole.

There is a spiritual hunger around the world by Christians of all denominations. Like no pope before him, Francis has comingled his own personal political beliefs (on issues such as climate change and immigration) with centuries-old church doctrine. This pope needs to get back to basics and focus on evangelizing like John Paul II did during his 17-year papacy. This Holy Father needs to be less political and more spiritual. He needs to break free from the labels that have been heaped on him by critics and supporters alike. He needs to get back to the universal message of the church that resonates in both industrialized nations and the developing world. 

This pope has been a polarizing figure among the faithful. He’s been on the receiving end of much criticism in recent years from conservative Catholics who increasingly believe his mixed messages on homosexuality, birth control and allowing those who have divorced to receive communion runs counter to the catechism.

At the same time, Pope Francis has often demonstrated himself to be a champion of liberal causes and seen by progressive Catholics as someone charting the church on a radically new course more in line with the needs and wants of a modern secular world.

For example, asking “who am I to judge?” in a 2013 news conference when referring to the LGBTQ community has been largely welcomed by non-Catholics and the secular news media. In January 2014, Francis even made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in a piece that praised him and largely attacked his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.

The events of the past few months have changed things for the pope. His mishandling of clergy sex-abuse cases revealed a sharp drop in confidence by American Catholics. No longer seen in a positive light, Francis has seen his authority weaken. In an interview with Spanish priest Fernando Prado for his new book, The Strength of Vocation — excerpts of which were recently released — the pontiff said homosexuality among the clergy “is something that worries me.” Those remarks, however welcome by conservative Catholics, seemed in direct contradiction with earlier statements.

It’s these mixed messages from a man who holds so much power and moral authority that have often caused confusion and distress. World Youth Day, a time for young people to gather in prayer, is a real opportunity for this pope to channel Saint Pope John Paul II by upholding the Catholic catechism and the tenants the church was built upon.

The news coverage of the last few months has undoubtedly hurt the church’s image. The ongoing scandals and controversy around former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and the pope’s alleged protection of him) have tarnished the image of the Catholic Church. Some have even called on the pope to resign, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano this past August. The former Vatican ambassador to Washington penned an 11-page letter to make the unprecedented call.

Where does the church go from here? That’s where an opportunity like World Youth Day can help re-ignite faith among teens and young adults.

This isn’t the first time the church has had to counter the ills of a secular culture. Indeed, papal visits often have a lasting effect. While in college, I scored a ticket to John Paul II’s Central Park mass in September 1995, an event that attracted 125,000 pilgrims. It remains one of the largest public religious gatherings in New York’s history, second only to Billy Graham’s crusade in 1991 (also in Central Park) that attracted 250,000. The pope’s New York visit remains one of the highlights of my life. To see New York undergo such a spiritual transformation during the visit was truly sensational and inspiring.

The crowd listened intently as John Paul tailored his message to young people, as he had in Denver two years earlier at World Youth Day. In the homily, the pope exhorted people to stand up for marriage and family, help the poor and hungry, oppose abortion, violence and pornography and spread Christianity. That event is widely credited with igniting a spiritual dynamism in the Denver Archdiocese that led to numerous vocations and packed seminaries.


"Stand up for marriage and family life,” he said. "Stand up for purity… Resist the pressures and temptations of a world that too often tries to ignore a most fundamental truth: that every life is a gift from God.”

The globe-trotting John Paul II was a master of messaging in the pre-social media age. By confronting the secular world with biblical truth — while upholding the catechism — gave him and the church credibility. To some, it’s that credibility the current pope has lost. Pope Francis has a real chance to gain it back and restore the “Catholic brand” before hundreds of thousands of young people.

The populist political wave that gave the United States a Donald Trump presidency two years ago — as well as the Brexit vote and the recent Brazilian elections — was a fight against elitism and the establishment. In many ways, Pope Francis has come to embody that establishment after gaining mainstream media acceptance. Aligning himself on the political left and taking up issues such as climate change have left Pope Francis on the opposite side of many believers.

Panama is a nation that connects two hemispheres. It will be the perfect setting for a papal reset. This is an opportunity Pope Francis needs in order to make the church relevant again as a global religious institution. All he needs to do is channel the message of John Paul II.