After the interruption caused by the pandemic, World Youth Days (WYD) are regaining color. For months, in Lisbon and in the dioceses of the country, the reception of young people from Europe and all over the world has been actively prepared.
Quickly, however, the organizers stressed that they wanted to take into account the dynamic of integral ecology that Pope Francis has instilled since 2015 in the Catholic Church. A dynamic that asks Christians to be more and more exemplary in respecting Creation and developing sustainable lifestyles. But how to make for such a gathering using the very little eco-responsible tools of mass tourism when already nearly 6,000 young pilgrims are coming from the United States, 9,000 from Poland and more than 30,000 from Italy etc.?
Get up and walk
The Rise Up proposal (“Get up”, in English) was one of the proposals not to remain powerless in front of the difficulty. Educational tool set up for groups preparing to come to Lisbon, he proposed to organize local meetings during the spring of 2023. Formation meetings addressing the major themes of the pontificate of Francis, including that of integral ecology as it was declined in the encyclical Laudato if‘. But has this changed the means chosen by group organizers around the world to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible when everyone wants to limit costs in order to be able to invite the greatest number of young people? Nothing less sure. As a reminder, a diocese like that of Lyon, which has set itself the ambition of bringing in nearly 2,000 young people, has planned a budget of nearly 1.8 million euros for this operation.
It is enough to take the pulse of the communication of the dioceses and the movements in France inviting young people to realize the problem. Most of the diocesan delegations for ecology were not solicited in the preparatory work, relegating the ecological argument to a few proposals, for the most creative, of alternative transport for small groups of walkers, cyclists or sailors.
But moving several hundred young people from a diocese to the other end of Europe usually involves squaring the circle: by train? Too expensive. The plane? Inconvenient for large groups and the worst in terms of fossil fuel consumption. There remains the bus, which combines flexibility and adaptability, but which also remains very polluting. The problem is even more complicated since the organizers of the World Youth Days announced that a certain number of public transport on the spot, contrary to the initial announcements, will not be free for the World Youth Days. Several dioceses had to suddenly reorganize their program and ask French bus companies to stay on site to ensure travel.
However, the ecological sensitivity among the organizers of WYD already has a certain seniority. In 2013, the John Paul II Foundation for Youth launched a series of preparatory conferences on these themes: “Young guardians of creation. The future on a human scale that we want” for Rio de Janeiro 2013; “For an integral ecology. Young people, protagonists of change” for Krakow 2016; “Young people for the common home. Ecological conversion in action” for Panama 2019. In July 2022, a similar meeting took place at the Catholic University of Portugal, on the theme “The commitment of young people in favor of the “integral ecology. Ways of life for a new humanity”. But of this reflection and the manifestos that resulted from it, what remains decisive when setting out for Lisbon?
In the spring of 2022, a letter of commitment was also signed on the occasion of World Earth Day, April 22, between the Portuguese WYD organizing committee and the various civil and religious, local and international partners. A text that set sustainability as the central objective of WYD 2023. Economic, social and environmental sustainability, specifies the text. But how to precisely measure the latter to assess the real efforts made? By calculating, for example, the ecological footprint of such an event, which consists in precisely evaluating the quantity of fossil energy spent or saved, at each stage. Means of action to compensate for this expense are also proposed to ultimately arrive, ideally, at a balance sheet of ecological neutrality.
Trees hiding the forest?
As the main means of compensation, the organizers proposed an international operation by promoting the active planting of trees. The latter constitute a natural means of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and a mobilizing response within everyone’s reach. A partnership with the Global Tree Initiative (GTI), which specializes in this type of tree planting operation, has thus been set up. But the results so far are disappointing, with organizers citing a small number of 17,000 trees planted. And for the most part in Portugal, for example by the diocese of Aveiro which planted 1000 trees during World Tree Day in an area affected by recent fires. Should this be seen as a sign of a graft that did not take? The GTI’s Portuguese branch only operated for two years and dissolved at the start of 2023.
On the side of the French dioceses, some attempts are worth noting. In Nanterre, for example, an operation via a crowdfunding site consisted of offering an eco-participation of €7 for WYD pilgrims, which will also result in the planting of personalized trees in the fall. Appointment is made to see the final result.
One more effort
The overall impression is that WYD 2023 will not yet be those of great ecological awareness. Recently, on social networks, the Jesuits recalled that for “socio-economic and ecological reasons”, it had been decided to favor local events rather than pushing hard to send as many young people as possible to Lisbon. A fundamental trend for the future which could even, in the long term, call into question the very model of this kind of mega-event, necessarily incompatible with the choices of sobriety and economy expected of everyone in the future.