ROME – When it comes to organizing major world events, whether at home or on the road, the Vatican’s got a fairly decent track record. Its success is all the more impressive given that it doesn’t always pick the easiest spots, and that willingness to take risks seems set to continue in 2018-19.
The Church’s two next big global events, the World Meeting of Families and World Youth Day, will be taking place respectively in Dublin and in Panama, which for different reasons present logistical and PR challenges.
“Events often work out well when not everything goes smoothly,” said Yago de la Cierva, editor of Megaevents of the Catholic Church: Logbook for Organizers and Communicators, before a small group of journalists meeting near the Vatican.
“The choice of Dublin is excellent, precisely because there are problems,” he said.
Although Ireland remains among the most Catholic nations in Europe, it has been scarred by the clerical sex abuse crisis of the 1990s. Official data show a six-point percentage drop in the number of Irish calling themselves “Catholic” just between 2011 and 2016.
Now, a referendum will take place in Ireland on May 25, which could overturn its constitutional ban on abortion. Early polling has suggested a close split, but with a majority of Irish citizens likely to vote in favor of changing the constitution.
Not long afterwards, the World Meeting of Families, an event founded by St. Pope John Paul II, will take place in Dublin August 21-26.
Despite the tensions, Father Carlos Simon Vazquez of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which organizes the event, said that the Irish people and authorities have shown “great generosity and a culture of collaboration” with the Vatican.
“Ireland continues to be a profoundly Catholic country, and there is much hope for families,” he said. “For example, the birth rate is the highest in Europe, and violence within families is low.”
“We have had a very, very positive and enthusiastic response regarding collaboration,” Simon said.
Though it’s difficult to say how many will show up, Simon said that already more than 20,000 people from over 100 countries have registered.
The World Meeting of Families will be centered on the theme, “The Gospel for the Family, Joy for the World,” drawn from Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The first day, August 22, will feature a pastoral congress focusing on marriage and the need for permanent formation.
The global gathering then will throw a “party” at Croke stadium, the fourth largest in Europe with a capacity of 83,000 people, and finally a Mass on August 26, when anywhere between half a million and a million people are expected. Though there’s been no official confirmation, Simon said Francis “is intent on going.”
“The country is eager for Pope Francis’s visit,” he said, and “expectations are high,” considering that the last time a pope came calling was July of 1979 with a newly-elected John Paul II.
In an interview with Crux earlier this month, former Irish President Mary McAleese warned that Francis will encounter a different Ireland from the one his predecessor visited nearly 40 years ago, and expressed concern about whether the pope fully appreciates the “depth of hurt” many Irish people feel, both because of the clerical sexual abuse scandals and a perceived exclusion of women from leadership roles in the Church.
According to Cierva, this won’t scare off the pope.
“Precisely because the eyes of the world are watching Dublin, making a big event [there] is fantastic, it’s a blessing,” he said.
Panama, the small central American country that will be hosting the 35th World Youth Day celebration January 22-27, 2019, also represents a complex and multifaceted reality.
While the country’s economy has been growing, unemployment is on the rise and nearly a third of its population lives in poverty. More than 10 percent of Panamanians live in extreme poverty, according to data from the Economic Commission for Latin America.
Miroslava Rosas Vargas, Panama’s ambassador to the Holy See, described her country as the “heart of the universe” and an important immigration crossroads between the Americas, making it an extremely multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious reality.
In light of this, the ambassador said, Panama will take advantage of the global spotlight of World Youth Day to enact new regulations for immigration “to do everything to have an organized and efficient system for the influx,” signed by all members of the UN observer organization “SICA,” meaning Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
The country has also made headlines lately for the “Panama papers” scandal, where millions of leaked confidential documents revealed financial indiscretions and illegalities of the rich and wealthy, portraying Panama as a tax haven.
“It’s a misunderstood country, because all the world sees it negatively for something that does not have to do with Panama and its financial system,” Vargas said.
She added that the pope’s choice to make Panama the venue for this meeting was motivated, in her opinion, by its overall poverty and high number of young people.
“Pope Francis’s visit will bring joy and happiness for the youth in our continent,” Vargas said.
Since an announcement in 2017, she continued, Panama’s authorities have gone “all in” for World Youth Day. Already 75,000 young people from across the globe have signed up through the event’s website, and Vargas recognized that it “will be a challenge for the entire country.”
Cierva, who’s helped run several World Youth Days, stated that “organizing these events is a headache,” but added hopefully that in the case of Panama, “unlike in Rio and Krakow, it won’t rain!”
He also said that journalists following the event “will have a chance to see that things are actually much better [in Panama] than it was thought before.”