Friday, June 07, 2024

Record 'profits' for WYD 2023, but transparency may be biggest legacy

The World Youth Day 2023 Foundation, which organized the event that drew over 400 thousand pilgrims to Portugal last summer, presented its official accounts on Friday, 31 May, the feast of the Visitation — a nod to the motto of the gathering: “Mary arose and went with haste”.

The event’s chief organizer and now Bishop of Setúbal, Cardinal Américo Aguiar, told journalists that the WYD had made a “profit” of around 35 million euros, though the technical term is “surplus,” not profit, since the World Youth Day project is a non-profit.  

The financial result is a likely record for a World Youth Day since the event began in Rome in 1986. At least, as far as anyone call tell.

While the results from last year’s gathering show a very healthy financial situation, organizers in Portugal have little data to go on for comparison, since previous WYDs have been notoriously lax in their bookkeeping and financial transparency, Cardinal Aguiar pointed out during the press conference. 

“As far as we know, this is the most lucrative WYD ever,” the cardinal said. “We have an outline of Panama’s accounts, and they required an injection of capital to remain afloat. Brazil had a significant deficit, partly because of weather conditions that flooded the initial venue. We got nothing from Krakow. Madrid, in 2009, was a special case, since the Church formed a private company to organize it, which was then extinguished and never felt the need to make its accounts public.” 

“I don’t want to judge others,” said Aguiar, “but from the beginning we made a commitment to be as transparent as possible, both to Rome and to the next WYD, and here is the result. Everything that went well — and everything that went less well — is registered and available to learn from in the future. We hope this can be a legacy for future events.” 

At a time when the Church is facing serious pressures and regular financial scandals, the transparency of Lisbon’s accounts is being hailed by many as a breath of fresh air, and a fitting conclusion to an event which almost all pilgrims and observers agreed went extremely well.

The foundation also commissioned a study from the prestigious public ISEG (the Lisbon School of Economics and Management) on the financial effects of WYD for the economy as a whole. 

That study concluded that the gathering had resulted in an estimated minimum 350 million euros of gross added value, almost exclusively in the year 2023, and in the Lisbon region. It also quantified that some 10 thousand jobs were added in the short-term to the local economy. 

The report also estimated around 48 million euros of lasting investment, including the transformation of the whole of the area around the location of the final vigil and Mass, which was held in a riverside wasteland transformed into a park. It also highlighted gains in terms of reputation, and future income from tourism for the region and country. 

The sole negative note by the team of economists, headed by Nuno Valério, was that deflation stalled in Portugal in August 2023, despite a decrease in the rest of the European Union, though it reverted to normal in September. 

According to Nuno Valério, “based on the information we have, the only comparable WYD in terms of economic impact was Madrid 2011, and the positive impact in Portugal was greater.” 

“Of course,” Valério said, “this is also due to the fact that the country is smaller, so an event of a similar magnitude would always have a greater impact.”

Cardinal Aguiar said the results for the event had surpassed his wildest hopes, by far. 

“When we started out, I had hoped we might end with a positive result of maybe three or four million. But then, in the months before pilgrims began to arrive, we had tremendous hikes in prices of fuel, transports, housing and basic groceries, as we all remember. At that point I admit I got very worried, but with the help of local and central government we managed to find solutions.”

Key to the landmark results, he explained, was the number of pilgrims who attended — much higher than expectations. 

“Krakow 2016 had over 300,000, and Madrid over 400,000, but we were not expecting that many,” said the cardinal. “Pope Francis had asked us to try to attract as many youths as possible. There was concern about how young people would react to a major event after Covid. We really put our backs into it, and in the end we managed to have pilgrims from every single country in the world, except the Maldives. We didn’t expect so many, and that really helped with the proceeds”. 

Another factor was donations from private citizens and from corporations, totalling around 11 million euros either in cash or services. And the cardinal made a point of stressing that everyone in Portugal, from the cleaning staff to the policemen who came from the furthest reaches of the country to boost security, should feel that this is their success also. 

The final reason for the banner result, though, the cardinal concluded, was thorough, and austere management.

Of course, a positive financial result is always good news, but WYD isn’t about the money. So where is it going to go? 

Since the beginning of the event’s organization, Cardinal Aguiar had explained that the Church would take responsibility for any financial losses, but that profits would be exclusively directed to projects for children and youth in the cities that had been most directly impacted by the event. The foundation will continue its activities, therefore, investing the money and directing proceeds to projects in this field. 

The press conference also marked the passing of the baton from Cardinal Aguiar to Father Alexandre Palma who, as the new president of the WYD 2023 Foundation, will oversee the distribution of money over the coming years. 

The 45-year-old Palma, currently prefect of the Major Seminary of the Patriarchate of Lisbon, is an academic and seen as something of a rising star in the theological world, having studied in Portugal, Germany and Rome, where he obtained his doctorate in Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Speaking to journalists at the press conference, the priest explained that he would first have to form his team, and only afterwards would they begin to evaluate proposals for financial support, but that a natural focus would be on education and the arts. 

“One thing has to be completely clear, though. This money belongs to the youth. That is our guiding principle.”

Speaking to The Pillar, Fr. Palma stressed that the foundation’s operations will continue to emphasize transparency, with yearly public audits, and that there will be special care taken to ensure that all investments are ethical. 

“I do not want this money being invested in anything that goes against Church teaching, such as pharmaceutical companies that produce abortifacients, or weapons manufacturers, even if it means lower yields,” he said. “We made a big effort to make sure WYD was as green as possible, so we will also try to keep our investments ecologically friendly.” 

Finally, he told The Pillar that while he is still picking his team, he expects the majority of the board to be composed of expert laypeople. 

Also present at the press conference was Fr Pietro Yang Ju Yul, from the Archdiocese Seoul, who will be overseeing the organization of World Youth Day 2027 in the Asian nation. 

Speaking to The Pillar, Fr Yang admitted that Lisbon will be a hard act to follow, but that the methodology and transparency employed will certainly be used by the Koreans to try and replicate the overall success. 

One obstacle will likely be convincing civil society to be as supportive as it was in Portugal. 

Whereas Portugal is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, in South Korea Catholics are only around 10% of the population. “We have to engage civil society, and even the private corporations, and involve them as much as possible, so that they understand that WYD is important for the whole country”, he explained. 

One of the difficulties that Lisbon faced, and from which Seoul can, was dealing with refunds for pilgrims who were not able to attend because they did not obtain visas. 

Cardinal Aguiar highlighted the important contribution of Portugal’s consular network, which worked tirelessly to vet all candidates, but many were still denied, as there was concern that some prospective pilgrims could use WYD as a means to get into Europe. 

Pakistan, for example, had what was flagged as a suspiciously large number of applicants, around 20,000 — nearly a sixth of the estimated Catholic population — and many were not allowed to travel. Those who had already paid their enrollment fee were promised full refunds, though in some cases these were only processed several months later.

The Pillar asked Cardinal Aguiar if, in retrospect, it had been a mistake to keep on so few workers to process payments and refunds, after WYD finished, and he agreed it had. 

“There are things we would have done differently, and that is one of them. But another piece of advice we are giving the Koreans is to develop a better system to keep track of the enrollment fees,” he said. 

“In many cases, payments were made through more than one bank. When we wanted to process the refunds, it wasn’t always easy to identify who was entitled to what. We had many cases where people paid an enrollment fee, were denied visas, and then never even asked for the refunds, and we were unable to identify them. This is something that should be corrected in future events,” the cardinal said. 

The next World Youth Day is scheduled for 2027. In 2025, however, Pope Francis has invited youth to attend the Jubilee of Young People, in Rome.