History of World Youth Day

World Youth Day

To the average onlooker, World Youth Day (WYD) would look like a massive crowd of excited young people from all over the world, filling the sky with colourful flags, exchanging badges and memorabilia from their own countries for those from another.

They would hear chants, singing of national anthems and hymns on the metro, in the streets and at Masses. They would also see the Pope’s much anticipated public appearance, starting with his arrival around the city in his Popemobile and ending with the vigil and final Mass.

World Youth Day is a sight to behold as young people come together united in one faith, realising they are not alone. As all the different cultures come together as one, we see the unity and universality of the Church. It is a recharging of batteries, an energising moment for the Catholic faith.

So how did it begin?

The genesis of World Youth Day can be found during the Jubilee of 1984, at the close of the Holy Year of Redemption. 30,000 young people from around the world accepted the invitation of Pope John Paul II for the International Jubilee of Youth. The defining moment during the celebrations came on the vigil of Palm Sunday, in St Peter’s Square. John Paul II said to the young people, “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?”

World Youth Day is born

The following Palm Sunday, during the United Nation’s International Year of Youth, the Church organised a meeting attended by 350,000 young people. By doing this, the Pope had a greater purpose in mind. In December that year he instituted World Youth Day, announcing the first was to be held in 1986. A legacy was born.

The first gathering was held in Rome, with the theme “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” It was thanks to this day that Pope John Paul II earned the title ‘The Pope of the Youth’ – something that he has retained to this day. Now that the tradition had begun, young people started to prepare for the following year, when the event would truly reach an international scale, taking the spirit and the celebration of WYD to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

World Youth Day 2

World Youth Day has been held every year since, alternately celebrated at diocesan and national levels all around the world. The principal celebration is always held in the Vatican during the diocesan years, with an international gathering in big city, such as Madrid or Rio de Janeiro, usually every three years.

Staggering numbers of young people continue to flock to whatever place is named as the chosen city for the celebration. Each person takes a message of peace and hope back to their parishes and home countries, continuing the original tradition that Pope John Paul II started in 1984.

While these events are organised by the clergy and laity of the Church, young people of all faiths are invited along too, with an open invitation to come and experience Christ – making World Youth Day truly a universal experience.

Where did the name come from?

Entitled ‘World Youth Day’, the name of the event can be a little misleading. While it may have started as a one day celebration, WYD has gone on to become a huge festival, lasting for days, and has been attended by millions of young people. It involves many popular events, such as the festive welcoming of the Pope, the solemn Way of the Cross, inspirational catechetical sessions and the all-night vigil and final Mass. Never has a youth festival drawn so many people, nor had a purer purpose. Even though the event is called World Youth Day, people of all ages attend, from 18 to 81.

Bearers of the Gospel

Pope John Paul II’s last international World Youth Day before he died was Toronto 2002. Addressing the 800,000 gathered at the vigil he said, “When, back in 1985, I wanted to start the World Youth Days… I imagined a powerful moment in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, who is eternally young, and could learn from him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people. This evening, together with you, I praise God and give thanks to him for the gift bestowed on the Church through the World Youth Days. Millions of young people have taken part, and as a result have become better and more committed Christian witnesses.”

In daring to believe that World Youth Day would work, by inspiring millions of young people to join him in professing their faith every year, John Paul II left a legacy that will always be treasured. Since Pope John Paul II’s canonisation he has been made the co-patron of WYD, sharing the honour with Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Pope Francis has faithfully taken the baton from his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, carrying on the tradition. He has continued to invite young people from all over the world to come together, commissioning them as Christ’s disciples to be faithful to the Gospel and to be living witnesses to our faith.

The Holy Cross

When World Youth Day was just a burgeoning seed of an idea in Pope John Paul’s mind, he decided that there needed to be a symbol of the faith somewhere for everyone to see. A wooden cross was erected near the main altar of St Peter’s Basilica. The great wooden cross was installed as he wished, making a statement to the world that young people were taking our Holy Father’s message seriously.

At the end of the Holy Year, Pope John Paul II handed the cross to a group of young people from the Saint Lawrence International Youth Centre in Rome, who represented the youth from all around the world. He told them, “Dear young people, on closing the Holy Year, I entrust to you the sign of this Jubilee Year: the Cross of Christ! Take it around the world as a sign of the love of the Lord Jesus for humanity and proclaim to all that only in Christ, dead and risen, is there salvation and redemption”.

Those gathered in St Peter’s answered the Holy Father’s wish, promising to send the cross to the far reaches of the world. To every place young people flocked to celebrate World Youth Day, the cross would lead the way.

The Pope has sent the cross on many journeys since he first entrusted it to young people – from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, and country to country. It has become the defining symbol of youth celebrations. Every year, the cross has led young people to their destinations, travelling on pilgrimage through the dioceses of the country hosting WYD. At the end of WYD, amidst great celebration, the hosts’ youth entrust the cross to the new hosts of the next WYD.

Beacon of hope

The cross has also been sent as an icon of hope. When the Holy Father heard the news of the first journeys of the cross, he asked that it be sent to Prague, which was then still behind the Iron Curtain.

Pausing on its pilgrimage through Canada in 2002, the cross visited Ground Zero in New York – the site of the World Trade Center towers, where thousands lost their lives after the terrorist attack. It was taken from Montreal to Toronto on foot, in a journey that lasted 43 days. It has continued to travel around the world visiting places in need of a symbol of hope and love, like Aquila in Italy after an earthquake devastated the region.

Impacting lives

There are numerous testimonies of people who have been profoundly touched when they have encountered the cross. These testimonies seem to have increased in recent years, as they are shared and spread throughout the internet. The Saint Lawrence International Youth Centre keeps all these testimonies at the home of the cross.

One young person from the Canadian delegation to receive the cross prior to Toronto’s WYD in 2002 said: “This cross has had a tremendous impact on all of the nations where it has been present.

“This was evident to me during the ceremonies when we received the cross from the Italians. They were extremely emotional, crying tears of sorrow because they did
not want to give it up. We, on the other hand, were crying tears of joy because we were receiving a powerful symbol that we know will impact our nation.”

Many wonder how such a simple thing, two planks of wood, can have such an impact on anyone’s life. Seen in the cross is the love of Christ, enabling all who see them to understand the meaning and power of the resurrection. Where they go, the young people follow.

Icon to Mary

The cross is never alone as it is also joined by an icon on its pilgrimages – as Christ was joined by his mother.

In 2003, at the end of the Palm Sunday Mass, John Paul II gave the young people a copy of the icon Maria Salus Populi Romani, saying: “Together with the cross, this icon will accompany World Youth Days. It will be the sign of the maternal presence of Mary close young people to receive her in their life.”

The original version of the icon is kept in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome but the copy has journeyed far and wide representing the deep love of Mary for young people.


1986: Rome, Italy. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you. 1 Peter 3:15

1987: Buenos Aires, Argentina. We ourselves have known and put our faith in God’s love towards ourselves. 1 John 4:16

1989: Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I am the way, the truth, and the life. John 14:6

1991: Czestochowa, Poland. You have received a spirit of sonship. Romans 8:15

1993: Denver, USA. I came that they might have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10

1995: Manila, Philippines. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you. John 20:21

1997: Paris, France. Teacher, where are you staying? Come and see. John 1:38-39

2000: Rome, Italy. Jubilee – The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14

2002: Toronto, Canada. You are the salt of the earth; You are the light of the world. Matthew 5:13-14

2005: Cologne, Germany. We have come to worship him. Matthew 2:2

2008: Sydney, Australia. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses. Acts 1:8

2011: Madrid, Spain. Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, Firm in the Faith. Colossians 2:7

2013: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Go and Make Disciples of All Nations. Matthew 28:19

2016: Krakow, Poland. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Matthew 5:7

2019: Panama. I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. Luke 1:38

This history of World Youth Day is taken from ‘World Youth Day: Inspiring Generations’, which you can buy here.