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The 2019 World Youth Day was held in Panama City, Panama. (Photo by Dean Calma, IAEA)

Managing Risk for World Youth Day

World Youth Day (WYD) is an event sanctioned and coordinated by the Catholic Church—and other denominations—since its inception by Pope John II in 1985. WYD occurs every three years, drawing millions of religious pilgrims from around the globe.

The attendees, usually aged 15 to 35, use the event as a way to show their faith while concurrently extending hands of friendship to a global melting pot of youth and faith-based entities. The largest WYD attendance was in 1995 under Pope John Paul II in the Philippines with almost 6 million attendees.

As the years pass, more attendees are traveling to the event and more venues are hosting it—ranging from open fields to airport tarmacs. There are also numerous subevents, which occur before or after the main event of an outdoor mass by the Pope. Regardless of venue, city, or theme, WYD attracts pilgrims from around the world to participate in a spiritual experience under a mutual theme of faith.

Event Layout

Due to the size and scale of the main event, the host venues range from 2,000 to 5,000 acres. The event is always held outdoors with cover provided for the Papal stage where the mass is conducted, and where the bread and wine are stored before consecration.

Attendees remain on site and set-up camp with other individuals or groups, approximately 12 hours before WYD begins. Temporary shelters for the duration of the event range from tents to just sleeping bags. Many attendees must endure comfort hardships, including inclement weather, insects, and poor sanitation. Large groups range from 20 to 50 youths from local or global churches. They face challenges such as not getting separated from the main group.


Along with the millions of youths who attend WYD, there are principals—VIPs—in attendance. The most prominent principal is the Pope, who is the presider for the outdoor mass and travels with an assortment of cardinals from the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, local dignitaries, clergy, and an occasional host country principal.

During the 2019 event in Panama City, President Juan Carlos Varela welcomed and met with Pope Francis during his visit to build connections between the Panamanian people and the rest of the globe.

Because of the nature of the event, local and proprietary security, law enforcement, and military are often responsible for implementing risk mitigation practices to ensure WYD remains safe, secure, and undisrupted.


There are multiple threats that attendees and principals face at WYD. These are due to the natural and socio-economic environment that the event takes place in, as well as the nature of the event as a crowded gathering of young people with a religious focus.

These threats may include environmental threats like heavy rainfall; adversarial threats like terrorism, murder, assault, and theft; and social threats such as protests.


Environment. The natural environment that WYD is held in may pose a hazard. Open air gatherings are particularly vulnerable to adverse weather conditions, as well as geographical threats like seismic activity or flooding. As a result, the event is often held in the warmer season of the host country.

Health. There are also health risks at WYD. Some health risks are determined by the location of the event and prevailing diseases in the area. In the case of Panama WYD in 2018, pilgrims were warned about malaria, Yellow Fever, the Zika virus, and Dengue fever.

There are also health risks due to the crowded nature of the event, including influenza and gastrointestinal illnesses. These can be further exaggerated by the long periods pilgrims spend outdoors, sometimes sleeping in the open air while waiting for the Pope.

Terrorism. The large numbers of people attending this event make it crowded. This, alongside the religious focus and youthful demographic of the attendees, makes this an attractive target for terrorists to maximize the exploitation of their actions. This type of attack may include firearms, bladed weapons, or improvised explosive devices.

This was of particular concern when the WYD was held in Krakow, Poland, in 2016. An Iraqi national was arrested on suspicion of planning a terror attack. The arrest of the suspect, whose name was not disclosed, took place in the City of Lodz, Poland, a few days before the Pope’s arrival, when small amounts of explosives were located on his person. According to the Lodz Prosecutor’s Office, the suspect could face up to eight years of incarceration.

More recently, the Sri Lankan Easter bombings and the shooting at a Catholic church in Burkina Faso demonstrate that such an attack is not unprecedented.

Violent crimes. Popes have been assassinated throughout history. In 1981, an assassination attempt was made on Pope John Paul II. Although motives for murder and violence include the religious views of the Pope and attendees of WYD, the pilgrims to this event are more vulnerable because of their age.

Many pilgrims do not travel with their parents but within their church group, reducing the ratio of supervisors to supervisees. They may also be naïve to the threats due to their age and travel to an area or country that they are not familiar with.

Protest. Protesters have also targeted WYD, including groups that oppose Catholic ideology like NoToPope Coalition for WYD. This group protested in Australia against the church’s stance on abortion, same sex marriage, and contraception. Others have protested over controversies regarding the organization and logistics of the event, such as using public funding or damage to the environment.

WYD can also be affected by strike action that is not necessarily targeting the event but using it as a means to further other causes. This was the case in Sydney, Australia, where rail workers planned to strike during WYD overpay complaints.

Protests may significantly disrupt WYD and its attendees, as well as increase the potential for confrontations between protestors and pilgrims.


To understand how techniques can be used to mitigate risk at large-scale religious events like WYD, security professionals must know who is responsible for ensuring the protection of visiting principals and attendees. Physical and personnel security must work hand-in-hand to mitigate risk.

Months or even years prior to WYD, the venue, travel routes, and evacuation procedures are brainstormed; put before security, law enforcement, and military personnel; and studied. Usually via a tabletop exercise, security specialists and professionals share with local authorities and Papal security staff their findings, potential risks and threats, and evacuation procedures. They also use this time to make suggestions, modifications, and integrate final security procedures.

Vatican staff and security professionals also research the crime rate, political climate, and terroristic exposure of host countries. Based on the intelligence gathered and using local partnerships as a force multiplier to gather information, they can plan next steps for risk mitigation.


Evacuation plans. With the multitude of pilgrims and principals in attendance, evacuation planning is critical. In the event of a large-scale attack or disruption, chaos will likely ensue. Individuals will push, trample, and inadvertently injure others while trying to reach safety.

Local and federal authorities should provide extra personnel in the event an evacuation is necessary. However, attendee safety awareness is the responsibility of those in attendance because it substantiates a higher probability of a safety success rate.

“In the unlikely event of a widespread, sustained crisis, each group leader should have a designated crisis check-in location,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2019. “Report to this location, if instructed to do so, by security, law enforcement, or event personnel.”

Mock evacuation drills prior to the event are ideal, but not necessarily pragmatic; but large monitors at the venue can advise attendees of the nearest exits and where to proceed calmly in the event of an evacuation.

Law enforcement. When understanding principal protection, security professionals must start with the main principal and work their way outwards towards the overall protection of the venue. This is known as the Concentric Circles or the Layers of Protection, which uses deterrents—layers—to keep aggressors from reaching their intended target. Security, law enforcement, and military personnel are the mortar that holds this risk mitigation tactic together.

The Pope and his staff fall under the protective jurisdiction of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. This guard force has been the primary protection agent for the Holy Father and the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City since the 1500s. Whenever the Pope travels abroad, the Swiss Guard are not far from him and are heavily involved in the pre-planning stages to ensure safe passage, conduct, and return.

The Vatican Police also work closely with the plain clothed Swiss Guard unit while the Holy Father is at events, such as WYD. Local authorities add an extra layer or protection when the Pope and other principals make their way to the event. They not only roam the venue area, but also provide traffic control and escort while the Pope makes his way through the streets and to the stage where he conducts mass.

The number of law enforcement and military personnel needed depends on the threat level and WYD attendees. While discussing the security preparations for WYD 2016 in Krakow, Poland, the Catholic News Service reported that “security fears are high in the wake of the Nice outrage and a spate of Islamist-linked attacks in neighboring Germany, as well as the killing of French Father Jacques Hamel, 84, during a mass at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France, on July 26. The Islamic State Group claimed responsibility for the attack.”

WYD shares many of the same threats and mitigation measures of other crowded events. But what makes this event unique is its size, religious content, and youthful demographic. The youth attending WYD are particularly vulnerable because travelling in large groups away from their guardians makes them susceptible to getting lost and crime. They are a target due to perceived naivety from criminals, not only because of their faith but because of the emotional exploitation a criminal can gain from an attack on this group.

Matthew Porcelli, CPP, security manager/consultant and chair of the ASIS International Young Professionals Council. Holly Ross is a former junior risk management consultant at Trident Manor and the recipient of the ASIS International 2019 YP GSX Experience Award. Porcelli and Ross are also the cochairs of the Young Professionals Committee with the ASIS International Cultural Properties Council.