Why be a Catholic? is a question every young person needs to ask. The way they formulate the question often indicates a sense of external constraint: ‘Why do I have to be a Catholic?’
Surrounded by an environment in which most people are not Catholics and not interested, the answer does not come easily.
But in the midst of 400,000 other young people from more than 170 different countries, all enthusing over their Catholic faith and identity at World Youth Day in July, what comes to light is both a reason and the desire for being Catholic. It doesn’t matter that this comes out of a sense of belonging and of peer friendships. This is precisely where God is meeting them.
Returning to New Zealand, our pilgrims re-enter the environment in which most people do not share their faith. They have not had the same kind of experience. Looking at reality from inside a faith experience and seeing reality only from the outside, are two very different perceptions. This is what St Paul was talking about in 1Cor.2:9-12. Living with these different perspectives of reality is going to be part of the legacy of WYD.
People who worked the extra hours to transport Sydney’s biggest ever influx of visitors, those responsible for law and order and those who write editorials, were among the many who went out of their way to comment favourably, even enthusiastically, on the impression the pilgrims made. The NSW Police Commissioner attributed the lowest weekly crime rate to the ‘spirituality’ the pilgrims brought to the city.
In the days leading up to the main events, there were some cross-currents. People who had felt hurt by the church and hoped for an apology got it and rightly so, because the pope came for those who needed healing, not just for those who thought they didn’t. They needed to express their grief. But this did not overshadow the main events.
What carried the pilgrims along was an underlying sense of life’s worth and reason for hope. There was nothing contrived about the pilgrims’ joy. It was more like a sense of inner peace. They themselves knew it was the peace Jesus said only he could give and that no one else could take away. It surged into a tsunami of celebration.
What Sydney experienced transformed local headlines. Not that the pilgrims were concerned with good or bad media coverage. They just got on with what was really happening. But now they need to be aware of the social environment to which they have returned.
The challenge for pilgrims
How can those who had the Sydney experience give to others some of what they received – the kind of faith experiences that can transform people’s perceptions, the church and wider society?
The following are three lines of thought that point in this direction.
Loyalty to the pope
The Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsythe, is not theologically sympathetic to Rome. Yet in his address to the pope he described the Catholic Church as ‘rock in the rapids’ holding steady in its convictions despite the spread of materialism and secularism:
Were it not for Rome’s strong insistence upon Christ as the only saviour of the world, the triune God, the divinity of Christ, the importance of Holy Scripture and the objectivity of Christian morality, the life of the other Christian churches would have been so much more difficult.
This is quite a compliment. Being loyal to the pope means being part of this rock in the rapids, making this kind of contribution to the church’s mission in the world and not being sucked into the whirlpools of relativism.
In his letter to the pilgrims preparing for Sydney (July 2007) Pope Benedict said young Catholics are better placed than adults to:
be bearers of the good news of Jesus to your contemporaries… You know the ideals, the language, and also the wounds, the expectations and at the same time the desire for goodness felt by your contemporaries.
Checking in to the oasis
The second line of thought comes from Pope John Paul II who started the World Youth Days. Speaking to pilgrims at Taize in 1986, he likened them to travellers who pause to drink at a spring of water:
In silence and prayer, you pause to drink the living water promised by Christ, to know his joy, to discern his presence, to respond to his call, then set out again to witness to his love and to serve your brothers and sisters in your parishes, your towns and villages, your schools, your universities, and all your places of work…
He went on to say:
Don’t wait for other people or institutions to become better. Go yourselves towards the parishes, the student organisations, the different movements and communities, and patiently bring to them the force of your youth and the talents you have received…
This was a pope who had huge confidence in young people and was never afraid to challenge them.
The future in the parish
A third pointer towards what should happen next concerns the parishes. They must ask themselves and young people must be there to answer: How do parishes need to adapt to give scope and opportunity for all that the young ones have to offer?
To teenagers and young adults, ‘parish’ means mum and dad and childhood days and they are now at the stage when nature itself is orientating them towards greater independence from their parents and from the places and practices of their childhood. Can the parishes provide them with the kind of space that respects this natural development and at the same time leads to new forms of integration with the wider Catholic community?
One thing I am sure of is that parishes must give lead roles to younger Catholics—not through tokenism, but simply because they are already members of Christ’s body and he speaks to us through them. If they are confirmed, they have already been commissioned to ‘witness to Christ, both within the Church community and in temporal affairs’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1319).