Shadow of Sept. 11 worries organizers of World Youth Day

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

TORONTO (AP) -- The shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has Roman Catholic organizers of next year's World Youth Day promoting the event as more necessary than ever in a troubled world.

The gathering of a half million or more young pilgrims, culminated by an outdoor Mass with Pope John Paul II next July 28, figures to be Canada's best-attended event in 2002.

Young Catholics will take part in six days of social service work and teaching sessions with bishops, all leading to a procession of the cross through the city on July 26, an all-night vigil on July 27 and the final Mass the next day.

Such huge youth assemblies, held biennially since 1985, rank among the major initiatives of John Paul II's papacy and have been highly successful in the past.

But organizers of the 2002 event, who have been working for more than a year on the Toronto gathering, felt a special sense of dread after planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Church officials already expected the number of participants in North America to be lower than the 2 million who came to Rome last year or the 4 million in the Philippines in 1995.

Now there's concern that a perceived terrorist threat might inhibit people from traveling to Canada from the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

The Vatican organizer for World Youth Day said recently that, for young people who decide to attend, John Paul will bring visions of peace at a time of ''calamities and catastrophes that border on the apocalyptic.''

''This old man, this old pope, will come and say, 'I want to help you have dreams again,''' Cardinal James F. Stafford said of the pontiff, now 81 and visibly frail in the 24th year of his papacy.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of World Youth Day, summed up the theme of organizers: ''The world needs the World Youth Day ... now more than ever.''

Rosica said early registration was encouraging, with more than 58,000 people from 85 countries signed up so far. Organizers are preparing for 500,000 registered participants, and expect twice that many people at the final Mass at an air field in suburban Toronto.

Original projections of 750,000 or more registrants have been scaled back since Sept. 11, but the planning -- logistical and security -- has been mostly unchanged.

Doug Nickson, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer overseeing the 12-member security task force for World Youth Day, said up to 5,000 police officers would be available for the Toronto events.

He was meeting Sept. 11 with local police officials when the terrorist attacks occurred in the United States.

''We went upstairs where they had (televisions), and then we could view the extent of the thing. This was mind-boggling,'' Nickson said.

His job immediately got tougher, he admitted. But there was no specific fear concerning security for such a huge event, even though the pope was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1981.

''You don't want to give the impression that there's not a lot of concerns, but what you do is you sort of address every issue and you put everything in place that's possible and feasible,'' he said.

One change involves increased screening of foreigners applying for visas to attend the gathering. The government has waived visa fees for World Youth Day participants, but the screening process originally planned for the new year kicked in on Sept. 12, Nickson said.

''My own bet is that the numbers (of participants) are going to be greater. I think it's just going to be the sort of feeling of 'let's not let that particular group or this deter the event,''' he said. ''My own family are going to be there, in full force.''

Rosica called preparing for the pilgrims a ''monstrous project'' and a ''logistical nightmare.''

The teen-agers and others paying up to $160 to take part will stay in school gymnasiums, church facilities and people's homes within a 100-mile radius of Toronto.

Then there is getting people to the various events. Every school bus in Ontario has been pledged, and police are working on traffic plans to keep things moving, said Paul Kilbertus, the World Youth Day director of communications.

Most of the revenue for the event will come from the registration fees paid by participants, Kilbertus said, with government contributions and sponsors also helping out. The Ontario government presented a check for $910,000 to organizers at a news conference last month.

Kilbertus noted it was the first time since Denver in 1993 that the event was being held in a country with a Catholic minority. But he still expects a lot of people to show up.

''One of the things we always get asked is, 'Hey, is this for Catholics only? It sounds like a good party. Can I come too?'''

End Advance

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