The Downside of Rio

Amid the rock concerts and screaming crowds, the call of Christ and his Church were, at times, nearly drowned out.

“Who’s the church?”

“We are!”

“Where’s the church?”

“Right here!”



The “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.

This 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 tunes—which bordered on love songs in tone but emphasized communion with Christ—some of the young women would sway with eyes closed; they knew every word.

The 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 positions—the 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.

Cardinal 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.

It certainly was not the cardinal’s fault—the 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 crisis—between being a pilgrim and being a tourist—presented a constant struggle.

Will 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?

A 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.

When 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 perspectives—from Hollywood, secularism, capitalism, and the iPhone—how 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.

On 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 grounds—a 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 era—love 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 Pharisees—the opposition to the Logos, the villains of the Gospels—that 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.

That 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 redeeming love.

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About Connor Malloy 9 Articles
Connor Malloy is a writer with staff experience in Catholic higher education.