This week marks the 26th celebration of Catholic World Youth Day – a misnomer as the event which began in 1985 is no longer confined to just one day. Though registration was lower than expected this year, the six-day event should draw close to one million young people to its host city of Madrid. Events include teaching sessions around the city each day and a youth festival each night designed for young people ages 18 to 35. Tonight, attendees will be able to watch “Stations of the Cross,” a reenactment of the last few hours of Jesus’s life, and tomorrow night they can sleep out under the stars after an evening vigil with the Pope. The celebration culminates with a Mass on Sunday led by Pope Benedict XVI.
Though discussions of condoms do not appear to be on the official agenda for the week, Catholics for Choice and its Condoms4Life campaign has sent a group of youth advocates from around the world to make sure attendees hear its message: “Good Catholics Use Condoms.” As Marissa Valeri, a lead organizer of the youth coalition explains:
“The young people in our coalition came from all over the world to proclaim at Catholic World Youth Day that good Catholics use condoms. HIV and AIDS are realities in the lives of young people and we know that in good conscience Catholics can use condoms to protect those we care about.”
The group also wants to remind people of comments made by Pope Benedict XVI that seemed to soften the Vatican’s stance on condoms. Valeri explained in a press release:
“We welcome that the pope has come out to say that condoms can prevent HIV transmission. We now want him to go further in publicly backing condom use and facing down Vatican conservatives because lives can be saved with a more realistic and compassionate view of condoms and sexuality in our church.”
She was referring to comments that Pope Benedict XVI made in November 2010 during an interview with a German author for the book Light of the World. In the interview, Benedict said condoms were not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, which “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he added that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.” Though the Vatican has repeatedly tried to back away from these statements, many advocates are hopeful that they represent the beginning of a change in Church policy.
Catholics for Choice had planned a major media campaign about condoms to run during the event “but at the last minute municipal authorities and Publimedia (a local media company) withdrew permission for the campaign messages to appear on billboards, buses, and bus shelters in downtown Madrid, claiming that the ads could be ‘offensive.’” The controversy, however, has brought a lot of attention to the issue. Jon O’Brien, the organization’s president, explained: “As a result of the ban, that ad has appeared all over Spain. Did the people of Spain see the ad? Certainly they did.”
Instead of the ads, the coalition of young people who are attending the event will spread its messages about condoms by putting up posters, distributing wrist bands, and conducting street performances, as well as other ‘guerilla practices.’
In truth, however, condoms may get far less attention at the event than advocates had hoped as other controversies are brewing. Most notably, debate over the price tag of the event which is said to cost Spain $85 million. On Wednesday, police clashed violently with protestors who argued that the country could not afford to spend this kind of money at time when so many of its citizens are facing financial hardship. In fact, a coalition priests from Madrid’s poorest parishes is also protesting the celebration saying the money should be used to help the poor and unemployed.