Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Madrid, Catholic youth and some hard questions

I have seen a long procession of posts praising the events of World Youth Day this year. One of the most interesting was by Ben Akers in First Things who compared the gathering in Madrid with the riots in London. In the same way that the riots demonstrated the moral turpitude of many young people, so, Akers argues, Madrid can be taken as an emblematic event:

A very different kind of spirit was on display in Spain: the Holy Spirit of God, which offers an opposite vision of a world transformed by love, joy, and hope. Let us pray that this new generation of youth gathered in Madrid will stand up in faith against what Yeats would have called the “blood-dimmed tide” by witnessing to the liberating power of the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Noble sentiments indeed. But what is this new generation really like?

I made the case yesterday that Liberal Catholicism does not reproduce itself, but reflecting on this issue I think it needs some nuance. As a rule of thumb, it is probably true, especially when it comes to matters such as vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That said, our ambient culture is so shot through with moral individualism and intellectual suspicion of doctrine that it would be no surprise to find beyond an inner circle of faithful Catholics a wider circle of those who mostly respect what the Church says (but not completely), and beyond them an outer circle which is either not sure what it thinks or positively rejects Church teaching.

Take in evidence of these nuances this vox pop video from World Youth Day made by Figaro International. It starts out in Spanish with French subtitles but most of the youth - who comes from various countries - speak in English.

Initially, they are asked what it is like being young and Catholic today. Generally, they answer that it is difficult because people don't understand (this is notably the case for the Spaniards; logically, because anticlericalism is stronger in Catholic countries), but it is not too bad. One even says it is very beautiful.

Then they are asked if they are excited about the visit of the pope to Madrid. Of course they are, with one exception who says she is curious!

Finally, we come to the big question: do you agree with the Church on moral issues that affect society. Here is the break down of views:


Of course there are things I don't agree with, notably condoms. The Church doesn't allow sex outside marriage but you have to accept that things have changed. We aren't 17 or 18 all our lives.

What surprises me is that the Church forbids abortion completely. For me, it depends on the context. You can abort if there has been a rape or if the pregnancy is not wanted.


We do not live in the same period as our parents. No, the Church shouldn't change its principles but it could sometimes be more flexible. But it's not good to be very flexible.


I agree with the Church on abortion and euthanasia. As for sexuality? I don't know.


I don't follow everything the Church says because I don't agree with everything. On the topic of condoms, for example, that's for everyone to decide for themselves. It's very important these days to use condoms. It's not about sex, it's about health.

We have to be very careful here. This is just a random sampling of views and we cannot be certain of how representative it is. That said, the picture of Catholicism coming from this sample is far from a healthy one.

One young person alone (from Serbia) sounds like she might be a 'Benedictine' Catholic, i.e. one who actually shares the same faith as the pope.

Another one (from Poland) is quite firm on some controversial issues, but isn't sure about sexuality. This is hardly surprising in the current climate, but this is not the Catholicism of Benedict XVI; it is most certainly not the sexual ethics which were central to John Paul II's teachings.

Finally our two young people from Brasil and Spain are fascinating. They profess to be Catholics and to be excited about the pope's visit. The Spaniards, however, have rather broad views about what they ought to be allowed to do. The girl doesn't want to obey the Church's teachings on sex, while her friend, logically, sounds like he would happily see her abort any unwanted pregnancy that came from her sexual activities. Good luck to them both. The two Brasilians are interesting not so much because they question the ban on condoms but because, as one of them says, one must be allowed to decide for oneself. Which makes me wonder how an individualist act of faith might go:

O my God, I believe in you and all I think I agree with. Because I have said it, and that is what counts.


Eh alors? Well, first, we have to pray for all young people, especially for those who have not been catechised well and those who are struggling with the many problems which our current state of ultramodernity throws at them. We have to ensure we are also setting the example. But I think above all we need a colder, more clinical, more realistic view of what these million or so young folk were doing in Madrid a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, we ought to be impressed by how Pope Benedict leads them in prayer. It's the first time some of them have ever learnt to listen in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. But is Akers right that in Madrid we have seen a 'vision of a world transformed by love, joy, and hope?' I think not.

Rather, in these few moments of vox pop, I think we are seeing something more realistic about the face of this mass Catholicism. It is very easy for people to get carried away with how wonderful Madrid WYD actually was. But how real was it in terms of Catholic belief? How real and solid is the faith that underpins it? How searching is the reform that young people feel called to? One Pole told me that the difference between a JPII WYD and a BXVI WYD (both of which she had attended) was that at the former the crowd went crazy about the pope but didn't really listen; at the latter, they went mad for the pope but they sat and actually listened to him. But is this true? Frankly, we might not be able to tell for many years yet to come.

I'm sorry to rain on this parade, but I do think some people have got carried away with it all and ought to be reminded of something. We are not Catholic by being excited about the pope or by declaring ourselves Catholic. Such a mentality is all too redolent of the views expressed in Mark Dowd's documentary which I wrote about here. We are Catholic by sharing in the faith of the Church, though the Sacraments and by submission to the successors of the apostles in union with Peter. That's the genuine article. Accept no substitutes, say I!

There has been talk of a New Evangelisation for the peoples of Europe and the West for quite some time. By this measure, they remain in desperate need of it.


berenike said...

A year ago, when I was at the Gorzkie Żale devotion in my parish, we finished singing the very beautiful meditations on the Passion, me as usual wiping the tears from my eyes a bit, and the (neon) deacon giving the sermon began by saying that we always associate Lent with suffering, with the Passion, when we should realise it's all about the Resurrection.

Talk about throwing away your capital.

I've only been to one WYD, it was a great help to me. I saw all the things you mention, and more (the Italian teenagers spending the whole of Mass in their sleeping bags or out of them, in their bikinis, e.g.). What the current pope seems to have done is to, as far as he can in his role, invest the capital he's been given. The rest of have to do the same, insofar as we can. I would think it's a marvelous opportunity for teaching people of the sort of opinion shown in this vox pop. Whether the opportunity is taken or not is another matter, of course. I've once heard a sermon on the evils of contraception in five or six years of almost daily sermons in Warsaw.

Dorothy B said...

Your post doesn't surprise me, I'm sorry to say. It's so important to be realistic in our assessment of the actual state of religious belief, even amongst those who profess their Catholicism as enthusiastically as the young people at WYD did.

This is not, of course, to downplay all the beautiful things that happened. We do not know how many souls - whether many or few - were enlightened to embrace the fullness of the Faith as a result of taking part. But clearly there remains a mountain to climb in the evangelization of the baptised.

Whether WYD is the best way to evangelize young Catholics is, I think, a moot point.

Mike Cliffson said...

Dorothy B :
That´s one of the points: if WYD, once every three years, is the only catequesis young Catholics get, however much it be the best in itself, how can it be sufficient against our wordly baggage ? In some -how typical?- cases shown, rather evidently ....
I would suspect not so typical, since WYD pilgrims tend to be involved in some movement, some spirituality in the church, which usually means that much better catequized than bogstandard.
Moreover, it's hard to resist the anecdotal evidence that it's a boost to the faith of the pilgrims participating,a witness to their mates who don´t go, the country and city they're in, even the watching world.
NB Do you know any good Catholic marriages of people who met as pilgrims on WYDs? Those I know would be a good fruit alone.
Cf.1.I know a case where someone pretty agnostic at best became a Catholic because Lourdes was dreadful! Meaning,for her, the mass of people was a bit akin to Blackpool or Torremolinos, only where was the attraction?
Cf2. The Father of lies doesn't like it, witness this time the manufactured, and highly sucessful, MSM attempt to eclipse millions of pilgrims with a handful of nasties.
And returning: western bogstandard catequesis, at home , school, and in the parish, would have a hard enough time even if it were trying to meet modenity and the social mileau head on.
The Catholic Blogosphere is witness that accomodation is more the norm. WYD´s connection with Peter and the magisterium may aleviate this, but it´s not a substitute for the church as it should be.Who said it was?
And if OTT praise turns you off, try the image of youngsters insulted and spat on kneeling and praying the rosary. The Kingdom of heaven is always already and not yet, a mustard seed....which seeds is normally planted in fertilizer, aint it?

Toby said...

Hi Ches,

I think WYDs should be viewed as an opportunity, and not as evidence of any particular outcome.

Whilst numbers do provide some sort of evidence of success in as much as they show people who are probably open to hearing a difficult message, the real fruits are to be witnessed in the weeks and months afterwards.

I have only been to one WYD, the last one in Sydney. I went there with a group organised by the Jesuits and it was probably the single most transformatory 2 weeks of my life. Whilst I was exposed to some dodgy liturgical dance and a little more hand-holding than was my cup of tea, I also received more sustained and solid catechesis than I have ever had before. Whilst this is in part due to my formation being lacking, despite a Catholic education, it does not take away from the fact that WYD represents a fantastic opportunity for the Church to change the views of those interviewed in the vox pops, with whom 5 years ago I would have been in agreement. One fantasic aspect of WYD for those of us in dioceses with wooly catechesis is the fact that it gives you direct access to teaching from the Pope and awareness of the means to continue this afterwards. Prior to going to WYD I hardly heard any of the Pope's preaching, but after it I was recommended several email bulletins to sign up to, e.g VIS and Zenit and these have been hugely helpful to me.

The group who I went out to WYD with varied in our orthodoxy prior to the trip, but I can say that most of us are far more in line with the Magisterium post the event than pre.

There are also many other possible benefits to WYD; joy, getting to bear witness to your faith, meeting Catholics from all over the world and leaving with a greater confidence and a desire to do and learn more were the experiences of many.

Mike Cliffson said...

Toby: Wow!

GOR said...

Noting your disclaimer Ches, that the sampling was small and might not be representative, one fears that it may be more representative than we would care to admit. I have never been to a WYD, given that my youth is well past me, so my reactions come from reported speech and visual images. From afar I was not impressed by the JPII ones which for me took on the semblance of a rock concert with JPII as the star attraction. “What did you come out to see?” came to mind.

I suspect Pope Benedict had similar reservations and has sought to orient them away from being a human personality cult to an engagement with the Divine - through prayer, silence and adoration. Most appropriate.

As with many so-called ‘pilgrimages’ - which often appear to be nothing more than tourist jaunts - one wonders at the real motivations of some of the attendees. Which is not to say that benefits may not be realized, graces received and faith strengthened, as others have noted.

But what do I know? My only experience of a ‘youth day’ sort of event was two weeks in England awhile back with the Legion of Mary doing house-to-house visitation. And no, Pope John XXIII did not put in an appearance then either…

Ttony said...

I feel surprisingly cheered by this, not least when the comments are read as well as the posting. I was particularly struck by Mike's point about mustard seeds being planted in fertilizer.

I suppose the way back is going to be long and hard, but whatever the views of the vox pops you found, here are people who turned up to listen to the Holy Father and to adore the Blessed Sacrament, both of which will have had, and will have in the future, an effect.

Toby's comments, in particular, sound as though WYD is worthwhile. This eldely man in white is talking and some people - more and more people, and most of them young - are listening. This might be a bit of the new evangelisation that is actually rather like the old evangelisation.

Jack Liu 劉洪昌 said...

Thank your for sharing Ches. This is sad indeed. These youths are exactly the reason why I want to be a Dominican!

Jack Liu 劉洪昌 said...

Thank you for sharing, Ches. This is sad indeed. These young people are exactly why I want to become a Dominican!