World Youth Day, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Well-formed disciples are shaped and taught through good liturgy: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi

By the measures of attendance and enthusiasm, World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, was a smashing success, as organizers report well over three million energetic youth on Copacabana Beach for the Saturday vigil and Sunday’s closing Mass. World Youth Day was conceived by John Paul II as part of his strategy for a “new evangelization,” a term he first used in 1983 in an address to Latin American bishops. As he later described in Redemptoris Missio, a “new evangelization” or a “re-evangelization” was needed “particularly in countries with ancient Christian roots, and occasionally in the younger Churches as well, where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel.”

From the first official World Youth Day in Rome in 1986, then, the events have taken place not in far-flung virgin mission fields where Christian faith has been unknown but in cities in countries of longstanding Christian tradition where the faith has been forgotten, among them Buenos Aires, Argentina (1987); Czestochowa, Poland (1991); Denver, USA (1993); Manila, Philippines (1995); Paris, France (1997); Rome (2000); Cologne, Germany (2005); and Madrid, Spain (2011). And World Youth Days have born fruit for the New Evangelization. Taken out of the narrow confines of Catholic life in their particular parishes and communities and given a grander vision of the Church universal, many younger priests, seminarians, and religious trace their vocational discernment to their attendance at a World Youth Day, while many younger laypeople claim to have discovered a deeper, or even initial, conversion to the Lord and His Church.

Mountaintop experiences do matter: they shake youth (and adults) out of the boredom of quotidian routine. But mountaintop experiences are not the norm, as Scripture attests; the theophany on Mount Sinai was not enough to sustain the people for the long term, and even after witnessing Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, Peter, James, and John failed again and again. Mountaintop experiences are not enough to sustain a person, a parish, a Church. Indeed, one sees in the Gospels that even repeated encounter with Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was not always enough to sustain the disciples. But from a passage late in the Gospel of Luke, which Pope Francis presented as part of his program for the New Evangelization, we learn that moving from despair to courage for mission involves an encounter with the risen Christ in the Eucharist.

The Backbone of the New Evangelization

If encountering Christ in the Eucharist empowers mission, liturgy matters, for the Eucharist is celebrated and generally received in the Mass, now often called the eucharistic liturgy. In his prepared remarks as well as his off-the-cuff comments, Pope Francis did not mention liturgy as such. But liturgy formed the necessary subtext of many of Francis’ remarks, given his emphasis on the importance of mystery, the imperative of formation, and the graces of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Liturgy thus necessarily forms the backbone of the new evangelization.

Many will have been impressed with the optics of World Youth Day: the numbers, the energy, and Francis’ style. But astute observers note that Pope Francis’ most revealing event was the address given to the Brazilian bishops on Saturday, July 27, perhaps programmatic for his whole papacy. Pope Francis begins by discussing Our Lady of Aparecida, a statue of the Virgin fished out of the sea in 1717 and proclaimed Queen and Principal Patroness of Brazil by Pius XI in 1930. He observes that poor fisherman were hoping for food, and having prayed received a poor statue. Echoing Biblical tradition about the theophanic possibilities afforded by the sea, Pope Francis says, “The waters are deep and yet they always conceal the possibility of a revelation of God.” Then Pope Francis discusses the special capacity of the poor to receive mystery: they bring the mysterious statue home, share it, and venerate it, and the people “entrust their causes to it,” with grace following upon grace as “God gradually unfolds the mysterious humility of his power.” Pope Francis finds a lesson for the Church here, desiring “a Church which makes room for God’s mystery,” “a Church which harbours that mystery in such a way that it can entice people, attract them,” for “Only the beauty of God can attract.” Pope Francis says that God “reawakens in us a desire to call our neighbours in order to make known his beauty,” that “Mission is born precisely from this divine allure, by this amazement born of encounter.” Mystery, beauty, and encounter are the province of liturgy.

Simplicity and Mission

Pope Francis is known for his simplicity; far from being a publicity stunt, simplicity is part of the fiber of his being, and he sees it as essential for the mystery that is essential for mission. And so Our Lady of Aparecida teaches us that the Church “cannot leave simplicity behind; otherwise she forgets how to speak the language of Mystery,” often lost in “intellectualism.” Lest anyone fear Pope Francis is retreating into a simple anti-intellectual pietism, he provides a masterful ecclesial reading of the two despairing disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 before insisting on “solid human, cultural, effective, spiritual, and [nota bene!] doctrinal formation.” Pope Francis observes that the two disciples are departing Jerusalem in disappointment and despair, like contemporary Catholics who leave the Church thinking that She has nothing meaningful or important to offer. But in the story, the risen Christ is able to show how all the dreadful things that have happened were foretold in Scripture, and after their encounter with the risen Christ, the disciples return to Jerusalem with joy.

Given that Catholics affirm the doctrine of Christus Totus, that the “whole Christ” consists of head and members, Pope Francis’ ecclesiological reading of Emmaus is brilliant. And so as Jesus accompanied the disciples in the night of their despair and turned them round to Jerusalem, Francis wants a Church that can do likewise, a Church “capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the ‘night’ contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a Church which realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return.” For Pope Francis, “Jerusalem” in the Gospel story is an allegory for the Church (and not such a stretch, given the centrality of Jerusalem for Jesus and the Church in Luke-Acts), and so he asks: “[A]re we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles…Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?”

Pope Francis does not mention it, but the Emmaus Road story ends in liturgy. At first, the disciples do not recognize Jesus; “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:15-16). The divine passive (“were kept”) means God is keeping them from recognizing the risen Jesus—for now. Jesus asks about their discussion, and in an instance of intense irony they tell Jesus exactly what has just happened to him (vv. 17-24). Their despairing words lack coherence; they can make no sense of the data. But the risen Jesus can; he explains how the Old Testament pointed to the necessity of his passion (Luke 24:25-27).

But St. Luke is not finished. If it takes the risen Jesus to perceive the coherence of Scripture, it takes something else to perceive Jesus, to encounter him, to be transformed from despair to missionary joy. The two disciples insist Jesus remain with them, for it is “evening” (v. 29). They sit down for supper, and St. Luke tells us that the risen Jesus—still unknown to them—“took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30). And it is precisely when with these words the risen Jesus begins to celebrate the Eucharist that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” and he then “vanished out of their sight” (v. 31). Christ is encountered and known in the Eucharist. Indeed, the two disciples will shortly relate “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread,” and his vanishing suggests he hasn’t departed, but that going forward he remains present in the Eucharist. It is the eucharistic liturgy that transforms these despairing disciples and makes them missionaries.

Liturgy and Formation

From his profound reflection on Emmaus, Francis moves to formation. The ecclesiological lesson of Emmaus means “it is important to devise and ensure a suitable formation, one which will provide persons able to step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearings; able to listen to people’s dreams without being seduced and to share their disappointments without losing hope and becoming bitter; able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity.” Pope Francis here is speaking of people with integrity, in the classic sense: having sufficient solidity and strength in themselves that they can minister to others. And so Francis states: “What is needed is a solid human, cultural, effective, spiritual and doctrinal formation.”

Liturgy—of course supremely the eucharistic liturgy of the Mass, but also the other liturgical prayers and devotions in which Catholics engage—plays a decisive role in providing such robust, dynamic formation. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council taught that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10). But here we may encounter a difficulty: Is not Pope Francis the anti-Benedict? Does Francis, a Jesuit, really care about liturgy? Why did he not mention it as such during World Youth Day?

It is dangerous, I think, to pit Francis against Benedict, which would involve reading them as the papal bearers of Catholic tradition with the hermeneutic of rupture Benedict himself decried, and in any event the division between the two is a false and largely media-driven narrative. For our purposes, it is important to note that Pope Francis’ remarks at World Youth Day are not the start of a new initiative but explicitly rooted in the concern of the bishops of Rome for the Brazilian Church, and specifically in the work of Pope Benedict, who “chose Aparecida as the site of the Fifth CELAM [=bishops of Latin America] General Assembly,” leaving “a profound mark on the Church of the whole continent.”

That conference produced a document, the “Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean,” known colloquially as the Aparecida document, which serves as the literary charter for the New Evangelization in South America. Much like Lumen Fidei, the document is the work of Benedict with contributions from Francis (the former Cardinal Bergoglio had more of a hand in the Aparecida conference and document than he is wont to admit) affirmed in toto by Pope Francis.

Especially important in the Aparecida document in light of Pope Francis’ concerns for “encounter” (a repeated theme as Cardinal Bergoglio) is section 6.1.2, “Places of Encounter with Jesus Christ,” for therein we find the common post-conciliar concerns for liturgy. The document affirms that “We encounter Jesus Christ in an admirable way in the Sacred Liturgy,” for there “Christ’s disciples delve deeper into the mysteries of the Kingdom and sacramentally express their vocation as disciples and missionaries,” and explicitly mentions the importance of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (250). Further, “The Eucharist is the privileged place of the disciple’s encounter with Jesus Christ,” the “inexhaustible source of the Christian vocation” and the “inextinguishable source of missionary drive” (251). Active participation in liturgy on Sundays and days of obligation is essential, for without it “there will be no mature missionary disciple,” as “Every great reform in the Church is linked to the rediscovery of faith in the Eucharist” (252), and so even communities lacking priests to celebrate the eucharistic liturgy must live “according to Sunday” as they are able (253).

Liturgy and Witness

Liturgy is there, then, in the new evangelization, and particularly in the Latin American articulation thereof. Indeed, Pope Francis himself remarked that the CELAM conference of 2007 that generated the Aparecida document was bathed in liturgy and prayer. Speaking to the CELAM leadership on Sunday, July 28, Francis recalled the atmosphere of the Aparecida meeting: “It is important to remember the prayerful setting created by the daily sharing of the Eucharist and other liturgical moments, in which we were always accompanied by the People of God,” and this eucharistic, liturgical, prayerful experience generated not a mere document but “a desire for a new Pentecost for the Church and the commitment to undertake a Continental Mission.”

In his closing homily at Sunday Mass, Pope Francis told those gathered for World Youth Day to Go! and spread the Gospel to all without fear while serving all. But effective missionary witness depends on having something to offer; one cannot give what one does not have. St. Bernard of Clairvaux uses the beautiful image of canals and reservoirs. Too many people, he says, are like canals, who let the love of God run through them. What is needed, St. Bernard says, are people who are reservoirs, who having been filled to overflowing with God’s love, let that love spill over out of their excess. Canals burn out, become bitter, and suffer disillusionment. Reservoirs proclaim and serve from a position of strength, out of abundance.

This, I think, is what Francis was getting at when he called for robust formation. The theme of this World Youth Day was “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Disciples, not nominal converts. Catholic disciples transformed by their eucharistic encounter with Jesus are faithful to the teaching of Christ as he continues to teach in his Church. It takes well-formed disciples to make disciples, and a disciple is one who has mastered his Master’s life and teaching, and who teaches others to observe everything He commanded (Matthew 28:20). Well-formed disciples are shaped and taught through good liturgy: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The point of the New Evangelization cannot simply be to make nominal converts or to generated good experiences. Faithful liturgy ensures that religious experience will be authentic, that we encounter the love of Christ rather than loving an encounter with our own feelings.

The ultimate measure of any World Youth Day—whether Denver, Rome, Cologne, Madrid, Rio or Krakow 2016—consists in two things: a general increase in Catholic fidelity to the Church and commitment to her mission in the world, and an increase in priestly, religious, and marital vocations. Attention to celebrating liturgy faithfully will ensure the fruitfulness of the New Evangelization.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).