Tens of thousands of young Catholics from France, elsewhere in Europe and around the world have converged on Paris this week to rally around a faith that means less and less to their contemporaries and around an institution trying hard to use the millennium as an occasion for a Roman Catholic revival.
As many as 300,000 young people are expected in this city in time to greet Pope John Paul II as he consecrates the 12th edition of one of his treasured innovations: World Youth Days.
The well-traveled, 77-year-old pontiff is making his sixth papal visit to France and his 79th foreign trip. An open-air papal Mass on Sunday at the Longchamp racetrack may draw more than half a million people, organizers say.
Many of the young pilgrims are here for nearly a week of festivals, forums and fellowship in thousands of Parisian homes that have taken them in. Their numbers in a city otherwise half-emptied by vacationing residents have made a marked impression on the energy and color of Paris, especially around the Champ de Mars, the vast former parade grounds that stretch behind the Eiffel Tower where 300,000 gathered Tuesday night for the opening Mass.
On every sidewalk, knots of young people clutch guidebooks in their native languages--the heaviest contingent, after the French, are the Italians--and wear big World Youth Days badges around their necks. The official logo of the event, blending symbols of science and piety, is a stylized Eiffel Tower sprouting the arms of a cross.
Susie O'Brien, 28, came from County Cork, Ireland, one of Europe's most Catholic countries, "because the goal of religion is to bring a message of love and peace. It's all the more important for me as Northern Ireland is going through a big religious crisis. I'm going to pray for all of them."
Visible among the backpack-laden pilgrims are thousands of Catholic priests and religious from around the world in their flowing gray and white summer robes and nearly 20,000 volunteers in bright green T-shirts and narrow-brimmed yellow straw hats.
The U.S. installment of World Youth Days, in 1993, drew about 300,000 to Denver. The last such event, in Manila in 1995, attracted more than 3 million Catholics from the other side of the world. By the next century it is estimated that 7 in 10 Catholics will be in the Southern Hemisphere--a trend sometimes overlooked on the continent identified with Roman Catholicism since its earliest days.
Monica Ferraci, 18, who lives in Sicily, was struck by her encounters with fellow pilgrims from Taiwan and Hong Kong. "I had not imagined there were Catholics there as well. It's good news," she said.
For her and many others, the youth event is a chance to see and possibly even "touch" John Paul. "He's a good man for all of us--generous, close to young people," Ferraci said. "Those who criticize him are bad Christians."
Daniele Hervieu-Leger, a leading French religion scholar, suggested in a newspaper interview that the faithful crowds and solidarity on view in Paris this week dramatize the church's tenuous position where these young pilgrims live: "They are a minority at the heart of a generation that is detached from this event."
Two of every three French people still call themselves Catholics, even if barely 1 in 10 practice the faith regularly. Fewer still adhere strictly to its precepts, notably its bans on contraception and abortion.
As in most other West European countries, and North America as well, the young and the middle-aged of France are drawn increasingly to other, alternative religions both old and new.
Islam is the second-largest religion of France, overwhelmingly practiced by immigrants from the southern shore of the Mediterranean sea. Evangelical Protestants, as well as Scientologists and other imported denominations, are also making inroads in France.
Most remarkably, in a country with scant Asian immigration, Buddhism is taking hold as a new faith by French people--700,000, by one recent estimate--raised as nominal Catholics or in no religious tradition at all.
World Youth Days volunteer Sylvain Meroulet, 22, said he is here to show love and respect for his siblings in attendance. All of them are ardent Catholics, he said, but he is not; he is drawn most nowadays by Buddhist teachings.
"Young people interested in spiritual questions want to explore the diversity of possibilities of faith, of hope and of action," Hervieu-Leger said. "Only a tiny minority considers that only one religion is true." She summarized the prevailing youthful creed as: "I believe in something, but I don't know what it is."
The pope's visit is a reminder of the sometimes-controversial 19th century label given to French Catholicism: the "eldest daughter" of the Roman church. But it also raises the dander of many who are vigilant about checking the Catholic Church's reach into secular life in France.
Critics noted that the pope will celebrate Mass at Longchamp on the anniversary of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, in 1572, a black day in French history when tens of thousands of Protestant Huguenots were killed by Catholics in the streets of Paris and elsewhere in the country. Today, France has a Protestant prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and several other Protestants of influence in his Cabinet.