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After two successful international gatherings with young people in Rome in 1984 and 1985, St. John Paul II instituted the annual observance of World Youth Day in December 1985 as an annual gathering of youth and young adults for prayer, worship, and celebration of the Catholic faith.  He told the College of Cardinals that year, "…the whole Church, in union with the Successor of Peter, must be more and more committed, globally, to youth and young adults – and to their anxieties and concerns and to their openness, hopes, and expectations…"

From that day forward, World Youth Day was celebrated each year by the global Church (during every Palm Sunday liturgy in Rome since 1984) and locally in many dioceses around the world. Every two or three years, an international gathering is held to bring all the youth and young adults together in one place with the Holy Father. After the first two gatherings in Rome (in 1984 and 1985), the subsequent international gatherings have taken place in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1987); Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1989); Czestochowa, Poland (1991); Denver, U.S.A. (1993); Manila, Philippines (1995); Paris, France (1997); Rome, Italy, for the Millennium Jubilee (2000); Toronto, Canada (2002); Cologne, Germany (2005); Sydney, Australia (2008); Madrid, Spain (2011); Rio de Janiero, Brazil (2013); Krakow, Poland (2016); and forthcoming in Panama City, Panama (2019).

While many nations of the world celebrate young people annually on Palm Sunday and the Feast of Christ the King, the United States has chosen to observe National Youth Sunday the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, which is typically in late October. 

What is the purpose of World Youth Day?

Both international and domestic World Youth Day celebrations are important for three reasons: first, celebrating and putting trust in the young; second, making pilgrimage; and third, encountering the Catholic community.


Youth and young adults are not only the future of the Church, but are active participants in the Catholic Church today. World Youth Day helps to prepare these young men and women to bring about Christ's mission in the world and to equip them to be missionary disciples. World Youth Day brings together young people from the four corners of the earth, where the Holy Father is able to entrust the Church and its mission to younger generations. World Youth Day is not simply a celebratory gathering of disparate groups of youth and young adults, but a key time to call them forth on a great mission of faith. Bishop James D. Conley from Lincoln Nebraska, a World Youth Day alumnus, says:

"John Paul stood among millions of young people here in the United States [at World Youth Day Denver], and told us not to be afraid.  He told us to go out into the streets and proclaim the Gospel.  He told us to defend life.  He told us to become saints.  He called us to the New Evangelization."


Understanding that young people are on a journey, the act of going on pilgrimage is an essential component to the World Youth Day experience. From ancient times, people of faith have made great journeys – from Abraham and Moses to the Early Christians, who traveled "to the ends of the earth" (cf. Acts 1:8) to spread the Gospel. Through the centuries, pilgrims have made journeys to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and many other great sites to find God through the resting places of the saints. Youth and young adults today continue on that same trajectory – and through World Youth Day, seek God through the experience of a truly Universal Church, in solidarity with the Holy Father and millions of young people.  World Youth Day, whether celebrated locally or internationally, is a pilgrimage reflecting the road that young people continue to travel throughout their whole lives.


In the Twenty-First Century, technology ensures that young people are always in contact with one another. World Youth Day goes beyond "being in contact" and gives youth and young adults a personal encounter with the international Catholic community they cannot get through their phones or computers – all in service to the ultimate encounter with God. Like the disciples on Mount Tabor, World Youth Day participants have a great opportunity to experience a transformative event – and to use that moment of grace to equip themselves for the great work that awaits them in the everyday valleys of life.

Each time I have had the privilege of being present at the Vigil and Closing Mass of World Youth Day (Sydney, Madrid, and Rio), when millions of young Catholics are gathered together at the same time, I think of the scene in the Book of Revelation (see Chapter 19) in which a great multitude stands before the throne of the Lamb, singing praises forever and ever.  But the realization of this little bit of "heaven on earth" comes not just because of the vast numbers who are gathered or the enthusiasm of their praise.  It comes from having witnessed smaller ways in which young people of every nation and language interact with each other at the catechesis sites, at the prayer services, at the concerts, and on the streets.  For sure they are not dressed in the pure white garments of heaven, but they are definitely clothed in joy and love of the Lord Jesus." -- Most Reverend Larry Silva, Bishop of Honolulu, Hawaii 

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