World Youth Day, by pretty much any set of standards, is a big deal. Launched by St. John Paul II in 1985, it’s grown to become one of the largest regular events on the planet, tantamount perhaps only to the Olympic Games and the World Cup in terms of size and significance, not to mention the logistical complications.

An event of that magnitude obviously doesn’t just happen – it requires two to three years of planning, and then months of intense activity in the run-up to opening day. The last edition in Krakow Poland, in 2016, is believed to have been the largest European event of the 21st century so far.

Of course, gatherings on such a massive scale aren’t just destined to be glorious – they also can end in ruin, seen as failures and flops, if lots of people aren’t paying attention to the nitty-gritty details. Two of those people in Krakow were Paulina Guzik of Poland and American Cecilia O’Reilly, who put in 20-hour days at times over a course of months to keep things running smoothly.

The two now have written a book, presented as a “case study,” capturing their experiences and providing resources for future organizers. Crux recently spoke to Guzik about what they’re trying to accomplish with the volume.

Paulina Guzik of Poland and American Cecilia O’Reilly, in the presentation of their book WYD 2016 Krakow. (Credit: Courtesy of Paulina Guzik.)

Crux: Why did you guys decide to write WYD 2016 Krakow, The largest European Event of the 21st Century?

Guzik: We agreed to write this book the very day WYD in Krakow was over! World Youth Days hide a paradox: they are truly the largest events on the planet, and you have to make sure everything goes smoothly, so that youth are happy, the pope is happy, the Church is happy, the government is happy, everyone is happy! That’s a lot of stakeholders, isn’t it? At the same time, the organizing committee has no experience at all. Yes, the Vatican gives you some guidelines, but they refer to pastoral aspects, not to logistics, organization, finance or communication.

So where do you start? By asking others that have already been there, and had the courage to tell us what went well and what went wrong, so we did not repeat the same mistakes. Specifically, WYD 2011 Madrid wrote a case study which was enormously useful, and they also helped us with their advice.

So, we decided to continue that tradition, and put together all the knowledge we accumulated going through the event in Krakow, and transfer it to Panama and to any organizer of future large scale Church events. In addition, Cecilia brought also the experiences from World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia 2015,  where she was one of the international media coordinators.

Some conclusions are the same, other are different, because things changed a lot in seven years: social media, contemporary communications, media operations and many other aspects. We felt an update was needed.

Have you been in touch with the organizers in Panama? Are they receptive to learning from your experience?

Oh yes. We presented them the book, we handed it to the ambassador of Panama to the Holy See, and she handed a copy to the committee. A few days later, we got an email from Victor Chang, Secretary General of WYD Panama 2019, saying: “Thank you for your book, it is really useful for us.” That was the most encouraging and rewarding thing after writing the book, because we wrote it just for that.

We also handed a copy to Father João Chagas, Director of the Youth Office of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, with the hope that when we know who the next organizer will be after Panama, he will be the one to recommend the book to them.

We do know that organizing committee members are very busy, and they might think, “I have no time to read a book!” Well, it is exactly the opposite. Reading the book will save them time, money and efforts. When you face a serious problem or a crisis, and you don’t know what to do, you can open the book and re-read a chapter on it.

We did that with the WYD 2011 case study: If we didn’t know how to communicate the finances, we looked at the book. If we didn’t know how to organize a media office, we looked at the book. The same thing will happen with this book: Panama will find helpful experiences on how to deal with foreign reporters, or how to organize media logistics.

This year the Church is highly focused on youth, with a synod in October. How do you think the communication for the synod is going so far?

I think it’s a brilliant idea to actually ask young people what their needs are. Pope Francis is 81, and he’s reaching out to young people who live in a completely different world than he lives in, asking them what are their needs, what are their thoughts, what are their expectations from the Church, and actually taking that into consideration for later documents of the Church – it is wonderful. This is really a sign of Pope Francis being a great leader.

With the pre-Synodal meeting that took place before Easter in Rome I saw the excitement of young people – excitement that they’re really being taken into consideration as part of the decision making process within the Church. The pope urged for the last diocesan World Youth Day in 2018 – give them the responsibility, make them decide, and they’ll feel more a part of the Church. For me that strategy is brilliant, also in light of the experience of World Youth Days.

Being able to speak for themselves during World Youth Day, being able to see the young and vibrant Church around them was great for their vocations, for their lives and life choices, which post-WYD surveys actually showed. WYD strengthened their faith, made them be closer to Christ – they openly admitted it.

Let’s remember that it’s the youth that organize the event, without them there would be no main events, no catechesis, no Youth Festival. We hope that the same will happen during the Synod.

You’re a professor at John Paul’s pontifical university in Krakow. After the document from the pre-synodal meeting came out, some questioned why we’re listening to the young, because they don’t know anything about theology and the life of the Church. What do you say to those people?

The point of view of ‘don’t even bother listening to young people’ is in my opinion completely inappropriate and even ridiculous. If we don’t listen, they’ll turn their back on us! I can see, actually, on a daily basis as a professor, how listening and entrusting responsibilities to young people really work.

I’ll give you an example. My students run a TV channel, JP2TV, which produced stories about WYD preparations and celebrations, in collaboration with the regional branch of Polish Television. Their programs were so good that, after the event, the Polish Television in Warsaw –the biggest TV broadcaster in the country – asked JP2TV to produce the whole show for the channel that would depict the fruit of WYD 2016.

At first the students were completely terrified, saying, ‘How can we do that, on a national channel?’ But giving them the chance, teaching them how to do that, assisting them and guiding, paid back. They produced eleven episodes of the show very professionally, and reached a million young people on their Facebook page not to mention viewership on air itself. This was in fact an example of New Evangelization – reaching young people through young people. Imagine that a 40 year old would be a host of the show – would a 15-year-old watch it?

Sometimes when we talk about engaging youth, we focus on hot-button issues such as sexuality. But the core of the faith is Christ – do you think young people still respond to Christ?

Great question. And the only way to know the answer is… asking young people about those issues. In Krakow we hired a poll firm, who conducted two surveys among young people, one about their motivation to come to WYD, and the second regarding what they took home with them.

Only 44 percent answered that they would like to meet other people, while 32 percent wanted to discover Poland. But here come the biggest numbers: 75 percent “wanted to find myself through Jesus Christ.” After WYD, 63 percent said that WYD helped them reinforce their relationship with God; 96 percent said the most practiced activity at World Youth Day was prayer, and, for more than half, WYD helped them to strengthen their commitment to the Church.

So I don’t think they’re unaware what is the core of Christianity. Many young people are really wise and well-educated, and this is how we should look at young Catholics today. They’re perfectly aware of the challenges, and they’re not afraid to ask tough questions. So yes, they will ask questions about contraception, the role of women and laity in the Church or their homosexual friends – but would you expect them not to?

Living in modern society, exposed to all the challenges and threats of this society, it would be actually worrying if they didn’t. Thank God they do, as that way we can answer and explain a lot. And remember, there are never bad questions, but bad answers…

We’ve also got the World Meeting of Families this year, which is sort of like a World Youth Day in terms of the dimension of the event. What’s your advice for the organizers?

First piece of advice would be – have an international mindset. Yes, the event is happening in your country, in your specific land, but many others – the entire world – should benefit from it.

It’s not easy to have that international perspective when you’re sitting in one place – whether it’s Dublin or Panama City or Krakow – the local media is constantly asking you logistical questions and you keep forgetting that soon some 1500 international media representatives will come asking you questions you need to prepare for because the whole world will be watching. So, the international mindset is definitely something crucial, and the knowledge of people who’ve done it before is also something to take into consideration.

Other advice would be to rely on many volunteers, but have also experienced advisers at hand. Events such as WYDs or WMOFs are as complex as the Olympic Games, but with a budget 1,000 times smaller! You need to be really smart in organizing it, including hiring people who are experts in many different fields, not only communications but logistics, transportation, IT, finance and sponsorships, etc.

Also, it’s important to think ahead about the problems that might come. You really need to have a crisis plan for an event. The closer you get to an event, the busier you are and the more problems appear. If you have at least half of them in your crisis plan and you know how to answer them quickly, then you’re safe. If you don’t have any crisis plan, then it becomes hectic.

Dublin obviously doesn’t have much time, but they can still think about it. They can properly plan their communications and the real message they want to get out to the world. Panama has a lot more time, but it’s still good to plan properly and prepare properly.