Meet the mastermind behind some of the Church’s biggest megaevents over the past decades.

Since Madrid’s World Youth Day in 2011, Yago de la Cierva has become one of the most consequential players in World Youth Days, World Meetings of Families, and papal events in both Rome and around the world.

For journalists, he’s a go-to source of what’s happening behind the scenes and on the ground before the pope arrives in a country. For organizers, his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of how to plan such an event is of inestimable value.

(Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Cierva during Philadelphia’s World Meeting of Families in 2015 and the 2016 World Youth Day in Krakow.)

In a recently released book, Megaevents of the Catholic Church, Cierva and a team of past organizers and planners chronicles the best practices of planning a major Church event.

Cierva recently spoke with Crux about why these events are an investment in the future of Church, and how they can be the impetus for profound, historical change, such as Pope Francis’s January trip to Chile earlier this year.

Crux: Tell me about your background—how did you get involved in the world of communications?

My background is communications in a broad sense: institutional communications both for enterprises and for the Church, and journalism, as founder and director of Rome Reports news agency. The same goes with teaching: I’ve taught in secular universities and in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. I love the idea of doing things first, and then teaching later. Preparing classes after a communications experience always helped me to reflect and evaluate, so after class I can go back to the real world and be a better practitioner.

How did you first get involved in helping to organize Church events?

I had a few experiences in academia organizing large conferences. But my first real experience was World Youth Day (WYD) Madrid 2011. At the time I was the communications director of the University of Navarra’s Business school, and the cardinal of Madrid asked me whether I could be the WYD communication director. I told him I couldn’t because of my job, but Cardinal Antonio María Rouco could be quite persistent.

A few days later, the vice-chancellor of my university told me he had told the cardinal no three times and couldn’t afford a fourth. So, he convinced my dean to “loan” me to the archdiocese of Madrid for two years. Then, there was a crisis in the organizing committee, and I was appointed executive director. It was truly a life-changing experience. I learned many things about communications and about management.

Large events are like a virus: once you get it, it is hard to get free. That’s why I also worked for World Meeting of Families 2015 in Philadelphia, WYD 2016 Kraków, and as a consultant to WYD 2019 Panama, as well as for a few papal trips. I know it’s a weird hobby, but I do enjoy dedicating holidays and free time to them.

You’ve recently written (along with a number of co-authors) a planning book for future organizers of major Church events. What motivated you to write this?

I had the pleasure to lead a team that collected the best and worst experiences of many people involved in Church megaevents, and draw some conclusions: what works and what does not work, and why. What bothers me is the lack of continuity in those events: every single organizing committee starts from scratch and learns from their own mistakes. Which means, they know what to do only when the event is over. And in that moment, a new, inexperienced committee is appointed. What a waste! It’s a pity, because in large events you only notice that a decision was a bad one when it’s too late to change it.

The book is like a collection of best practices and an anticipation of the problems ahead, so organizers can get ready. The answers vary according to the circumstances, but the questions you have to answer are pretty much the same.

We tried to be completely honest and even blunt. Here the temptation was to “play nice” — to overlook mistakes and exaggerate successes. But what’s the point? We mostly learn from mistakes. It is hard, but it is the only way. Some people in Church still consider that mistakes shouldn’t be discussed publicly and hide information if they don’t look good. This book is exactly on the other side of the balance: those coming afterwards deserve our help, and transparency is a manifestation of a spirit of service.

People often respond that these events are a waste of the Church’s precious resources that could better be used helping the poor. How do you respond to that?

Events are investments. You put time and money and efforts into reaching something. In the corporate world, companies organize events to motivate your personnel (or even to incentivize), reinforce your brand in your clients’ minds, and give more visibility to your values. The same thing goes with the Church: ecclesial events reinforce communion, motivate people to live according to their faith, provide a great occasion to reach out to people that otherwise you would not talk to, and to present Christian values as a positive contribution to society.

Events are transformational, they give the opportunity to change, and overcome the inertia that blocks any improvement. A papal trip, for instance, has a huge impact in a country, and helps renovate bishops, clergy and laypeople. That’s why they are worth every penny, even if each day costs between two and three million dollars.

Look for instance to what happened in Chile. The Church needed a big transformation, locally and in Rome. Thanks to that trip, the Pope and the bishops realized they were not applying the norms in the case of clerical abuses (due investigation, putting the victims first, etc.) and changed direction. Only with a trip could this issue be solved properly.

So, if you think Church renewal is worth the effort, organize an event, and finding the money is part of that reaching out to people and telling them about Jesus. Money is out there: a WMOF costs less than a Formula 1 race, and a WYD costs less than a Super Bowl. The Church does them because the return on investment is magnificent. Even from the economic point of view, every large-scale Church event leaves a lot of money in the organizing city.

Tell me about some of your most memorable moments from past papal megaevents.

The most memorable moments are always related to big organizational mistakes that did not have any impact on participants: storms and big rains that revealed there was no plan B, bad decisions on event venues and transportation, chaos because of a lack of volunteers’ training and management, lack of communion between different teams, the wrong set of economic rules, etc. I could tell many stories!

What has always amazed me was the positive and patient reaction of those suffering the consequences of the organizers’ mistakes. I have to say, the best element in any large Church event is the quality of the people attending it: with a supernatural outlook, enthusiastic, generous, supportive, docile, resistant and… always happy! It’s the best I’ve ever seen in Church people.

How do you measure the success of a megaevent?

To begin with, by comparing how the organizers’ relationships were with different stakeholders before and afterwards. If the event reinforced those bonds, it was a success; if not, a failure.

If it is a Church event, good results are spiritual fruits: by measuring how many people got closer to Jesus and to his Church (starting with the clergy), and made practical resolutions to live a more Christian life; how people far from the Church saw joyful and generous (and law-abiding) people, and that attracted them to discharge some misconceptions and learn more; how the Church worked together with civil authorities and found new ways of being present in the public arena; how to transform the sponsors’ one-time contributions into a long-term relationship to solve local social problems; how to improve the Church’s relations with the media and acquire more transparency and accountability in its activities… You name it!

Success is never measured in number of participants or in other logistical terms: gathering a large crowd is useless, or even worse, if those attending it are not somehow transformed.

Pope Francis has two major trips coming up — a World Meeting of Families (WMOF) and a World Youth Day, all in six months’ time. What should we expect for these trips?

I have no information about WMOF Dublin, but what I have heard is that it will be mainly focused on Ireland and Irish problems and issues. The presence of the Pope in Dublin will definitely be a blessing for them. It’s been many years since John Paul II visited them! So, I hope the Pope brings them joy and hope.

Panama’s WYD will be the first for a geographic area that should be considered a continent in itself: Central America and the Caribbean. We can expect a Caribbean fiesta (Archbishop of Panama, José Domingo Ulloa, once said that a good way to get prepared is learning salsa…), with many participants from that region and from the Americas, and a less consistent participation from the northern hemisphere because of the season: January is not vacation time.

There are many positive aspects in the preparation works. Among them, the full support it gets from President Juan Carlos Varela’s administration, which is a reassuring safety net for the organization. Of course, there is still a lot to do, but that happens everywhere.

I am sure the pope will have a great time there, coming back to Latin America, and being with the young people even more!