The famous Christ the Redeemer statue is seen atop Corcovado Peak in Rio De Janeiro. (CNS photo/Shana Reis, handout via Reuters)
“Who’s the church?”
“Where’s the church?”
“youth animator” at the center for English-speaking pilgrims in Rio de Janeiro
was revving up the crowd of young adults, no small feat considering it was 9
o’clock in the morning. It was the Friday of World Youth Day, and attendees had
flooded city buses, streets, and cafés with WYD-related backpacks, clothing,
and the all-important dangling ID lanyards. Pope Francis had his hero’s welcome
the night before on Copacabana Beach and less than 12 hours later the pilgrims
were back for another round of morning catechesis, this time with Cardinal Sean
P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston.
kind of morning wake-up call had been common throughout WYD. Middle-aged
Christian rock musicians coaxed the young audience to stand up, sing, dance,
hug each other, and shout praise to the Lord. “Let’s make some noise!” It
seemed to have its effect. The target audience enjoyed it. During the slower
tuneswhich bordered on love songs in tone but emphasized communion with Christsome
of the young women would sway with eyes closed; they knew every word.
animator hastily read an academic-sounding introduction for Cardinal O’Malley
while the crowd, having grown used to this format over the previous three days,
chatted while shifting for comfortable sitting positionsthe cardinal’s
background and accomplishments didn’t seem too important. But, as if on cue,
all applauded, most stood, and Cardinal O’Malley had the attention of 5,000
pilgrims from around the world.
O’Malley’s catechesis, on “mission,” aimed at connecting the New Evangelization
to the mission of all believers. It was an overwhelming, strong talk, and his
plea to “avoid the trap of the hookup culture” received respectable applause. But
for all of its insight and courageous urging to keep the faith amid a culture
that doesn’t understand the moral foundations of the Church, I had the
impression his talk did not have its desired effect on its audience. Before
long, heads started dropping and eyelids started drooping. An audience
distracted by its surroundings and coming down from the caffeinated enthusiasm
of the animator seemed mostly inattentive to what O’Malley was saying.
certainly was not the cardinal’s faultthe same thing had happened during
Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s catechesis two days earlier. But this episode
epitomized, for me, the World Youth Day conundrum. There may have been three
million on Copacabana Beach for the closing Mass, but how many were engaged,
actively participating? During WYD’s opening liturgy, led by Rio Archbishop
Orani Tempesta four days earlier, hordes of pilgrims were wandering around, popping
in at food tents and taking pictures of Copacabana Palace during the
Consecration. It was beyond easy to take one’s eyes off the ball, and this identity
crisisbetween being a pilgrim and being a touristpresented a constant
the distractions continue when pilgrims are no longer pilgrims, back in their
daily surroundings where they are meant to be evangelizers sharing the mission?
I have little doubt that many of the Catholics who got themselves down to
Brazil for WYD are serious about the faith. Again and again, however, incidents
such as the obvious detachment of the audience during O’Malley’s and Dolan’s
talks and the distractions during the beach Masses continuously raised two
questions: Are we serious about the faith?
And, what faith are we spreading?
roundtable panel featuring students from universities in Australia, Lebanon,
Africa, Spain, Brazil and the US revealed similarly distressing undertones. The
talk was entitled “Being young in today’s world,” and the majority of the
student representatives, to strong applause in the half-filled auditorium,
emphasized the Church as the people, that the people make the Church alive. The
general dissatisfaction with the institutional hierarchy was palpable. Only the
US delegate, a student from Marquette, mentioned the importance of communion
with the bishop of Rome and of Church tradition. Her contributions were met
with nothing but silence.
contemplating the emerging Catholic youth, the target audience of WYD 2013, one
has to ask, with what they have already witnessed in their lives from cultural,
domestic, economic, and social perspectivesfrom Hollywood, secularism,
capitalism, and the iPhonehow much of a role does Catholicism really play in
their everyday lives? And what kind of Catholicism is it, anyway? Because from
what I saw in Rio, for many there is a wink-wink, “do as I say not as I do”
mentality about the Catholic faith.
the tram to view the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain one very
early morning, I overheard two college students with WYD backpacks sharing
stories in English about their Rio exploits the previous night. One of them did
not go back to his lodgings alone. This tram conversation reminded me of an anecdote in A Dictatorship of Relativism? A Symposium in
Response to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Last Homily, edited by Jeffrey M.
Perl. One author relates that after a 2000 gathering of young people in Rome to
see John Paul II, “mounds of used condoms were reportedly found scattered on
the groundsa most eloquent monument to relativism.” In Rio it dawned on me
that it isn’t atheistic secularization, Islam, or the federal government
sinking Catholicism’s moral authority: it’s Catholics themselves.
While it is undeniable that WYD
has produced enthusiasm for and solidarity in the Faith among many of the young
people who have attended the events over the last several decades, what I saw
in Rio with these few examples was, perhaps, the realization of Joseph Cardinal
Ratzinger’s warning on April 18, 2005: “We are building towards a dictatorship
of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate
goal consists of one’s own ego and desires.” He doesn’t say “the world” is
building towards it, but “we are.”
The dictatorship of relativism,
the great disease agent of secularism, has penetrated the Church’s beloved young
people. It blossomed after they ignobly ushered the prophetic Pope Benedict off
stage right at his resignation while lavishing praise on Francis in a dangerous
reboot of the John Paul superstar eralove the man, ignore the message. Could
the ironic generation even grasp the irony?
To be sure, many have heeded the
motto from WYD Madrid in 2011, proclaimed by Benedict XVI himself, “Do not be
ashamed of the Lord!” Lives have
certainly been altered. Anyone who claims the Church is on decline better
remove Catholicism’s date of death from its tombstone. But the Church would be
the first to say numbers don’t always tell the whole story, even though many
proudly pointed to the pictures of three million on Copacabana as testimony.
“Swim against the tide” is how
Pope Francis has said it, but each of us need to look precisely at that murky
tide and admit we might not like what we see. The tide might even contain those
who claim to be Catholic but whose thinking and choices are anything but. Do we
have the strength to swim against that?
“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” said Jesus (Mk 2:17). In his
address “Conscience and Truth,” published in the book On Conscience, Cardinal Ratzinger says that Jesus is “ineffective
with ‘the righteous’ because they are not aware of any need for forgiveness and
conversion.” When we Catholics appear more like the Phariseesthe opposition to
the Logos, the villains of the
Gospelsthat might precisely be the moment of our own metanoia. And realizing that, we can then turn the tide.
Atop Corcovado Mountain, when reading the history of Christ the
Redeemer statue, I learned the original design had Christ holding a cross in
one hand and a globe in the other. The cardinal archbishop at the time,
however, ordered that the statue’s arms be outstretched, hands open. He
explained that the statue of Christ symbolized the cross and Rio, the globe. Considered
in this light, the name of the statue takes on an even more profound and timely
meaning: the world is in constant need of Christ’s redeeming love. The world,
as symbolized by the city of Rio, will always be tainted by its own sin, its
own corruption. A powerful city deep down in need of healing. To avoid the ever-present,
penetrating gaze of the towering Redeemer takes much effort when one is down
below. Yet it actually feels more difficult just to surrender to those
outstretched arms. How can One’s love be so great?
It was Justice Anthony Kennedy who offered this insight in the
Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood
v. Casey ruling: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own
concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human
life.” As a stand-alone quote, it reads like the English translation of
relativism’s coat of arms. That it was written by a Catholic is the real
mystery, but it is also the trademark of “chameleon Catholicism”and the only
dogma some will follow. Acknowledging that rampant relativism is fuelling the
cultural train is only a start. Weeding it out from the ranks of the very
institution capable of destroying it is the real challenge.
young pilgrims may have confused WYD with a rock concert is understandable. The
question is, can we trust them to see the substance beyond the fluff, the
Incarnation beyond the entertainment? Chances are these pilgrims love
challenges; we must challenge them to swim against the tide of relativism that
exists even within the Church itself, and to surrender themselves to Christ’s