Last year at this time the Catholic Church was licking its wounds after its biggest public relations shellacking in many years. Newspaper columnists sneered that the scandal caused by a few priest paedophiles was the beginning of the end. Its followers were so disgusted that they were said to be turning in their membership cards.
But if that pessimistic reading of the tea leaves was true, how do you explain the presence of two million young people in Madrid over the weekend to listen to an 83-year-old German Pope? They were all aware of the vile actions of a handful of rogue priests but these had not shaken their confidence in the Church or its leader.
So, if you are a Catholic sympathiser, World Youth Day 2011 gave abundant reasons for hope. Here are 7 of them.
The younger generation gets the Church
The 2 million young people who attended made an impressive effort to back up their convictions. While most of the pilgrims came from Spain and nearby France and Italy, there were hundreds from countries like Australia and New Zealand. About 150 came from Russia! The sacrifice of paying for a long and trip and uncomfortable accommodation shows that they were firmly committed to being part of the Catholic Church.
Contrast that with the World Youth Summit organised by the United Nations in New York. Admittedly UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has the charisma of a wilted lettuce, but this worthy gathering drew only a few hundred people. Whose ideas are going to be passed on to the next generation?
Benedict XVI is setting the moral agenda
Last week Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron reacted to the riots in London and other big English cities by decrying moral relativism. “What last week has shown is that this moral neutrality, this relativism – it’s not going to cut it any more.” Exactly. A free set of steak knives if you can name the first major world figure to hammer away at the “tyranny of relativism”!
Benedict XVI. The Pope has made it respectable to reject the political correctness which undermines moral striving. Obviously world leaders are listening.
Remember Cameron’s farewell words to the Pope after his state visit to the UK last year? “You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think,” he said. It looks like Cameron sat up and thought. His response to the riots came straight from Benedict’s playbook.
A one-man think tank works for free
A fascinating essay in last week’s New York Times by film critic Neal Gabler lamented the death of in-depth thinking: “we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”
Maybe in New York, but not in Rome. Gabler obviously hasn’t read much of Benedict XVI on morality, philosophy, aesthetics, economics and social responsibility. But many of the Pope’s young fans have. In a world where ideas no longer sparkle, his explode with possibilities. And they’re free. Any bets on what the next generation will be thinking?
A way out of the global financial crisis
Benedict got there first. With the world economy on the verge of meltdown, people are looking for answers. Surely at the root of the crisis is something more than mismanagement of economic levers. Surely economics is about more than statistics and money.
Well, that is exactly what Benedict (and his predecessors) have been saying. As he told journalists in a press conference in the flight from Rome to Madrid: “[We see] confirmed in the present economic crisis what has already been seen in the great preceding crisis: that an ethical dimension is not something exterior to economic problems, but an interior and fundamental dimension. The economy does not function with mercantile self-regulation alone, but it has need of an ethical reason to function for man.”
A thumbs-down to dehumanising sex and consumerism
The greatest question of the last 200 years is: what is true freedom? To do whatever I want? Or to live according to the truth? What our society offers young people is the freedom to consume until their credit cards max out, to have sex whenever they want with whomever they want, to live undisturbed in a solipsistic bubble. But this vision of man degrades him, Benedict says. Happiness comes only from discovering the truth. Many young people are disillusioned with the South Park culture they live in and what the Pope says makes a lot of sense to anyone who wants to build a better world.
“The discovery of the living God inspires young people and opens their eyes to the challenges of the world in which they live, with its possibilities and limitations. They see the prevailing superficiality, consumerism and hedonism, the widespread banalization of sexuality, the lack of solidarity, the corruption. They know that, without God, it would be hard to confront these challenges and to be truly happy, and thus pouring out their enthusiasm in the attainment of an authentic life. But, with God beside them, they will possess light to walk by and reasons to hope, unrestrained before their highest ideals, which will motivate their generous commitment to build a society where human dignity and true brotherhood are respected.”
Truth is more powerful than number-cruching
Benedict’s most memorable speech in Spain was to university lecturers at that jewel of Spanish architecture, El Escorial. As a professor himself, he spoke with passionate conviction about the need to offer students more than training in the nuts and bolts of professional work. “As Plato said: ‘Seek truth while you are young, for if you do not, it will later escape your grasp’. This lofty aspiration is the most precious gift which you can give to your students, personally and by example. It is more important than mere technical know-how, or cold and purely functional data.”
Universities, he said, should be a sanctuary from ideology or “a purely utilitarian and economic conception which would view man solely as a consumer”. What could be more attractive to young people than seeking the ultimate meaning in the universe and striving to understand what it means to be authentically human? If there is one bold passé idea, it’s utilitarianism. And Benedict offers an alternative.
World Youth Day is still the world’s best-kept secret
A journalist friend of mine wrote an op-ed piece for a newspaper in Sydney. But the editor wasn’t interested. “We had one of those in Sydney three years ago. That just about filled our quota,” he was told. The New York Times – the touchstone of elite opinion in the US – barely reported World Youth Day.
Really, this is peculiar -- a gathering of 2 million young people is not news, especially after a few hundred in the same age bracket trashed London? Isn’t anyone out there connecting the dots?
But why kvetch? The media and the intelligentsia are good at froth and bubble, but abysmal at deep undercurrents. Did they predict the rise of militant Islam, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the fizzing of the Population Bomb or the Global Financial Crisis?
The biggest stories are the hidden stories. Benedict XVI knows this. As he told journalists, “God's sowing is always silent; it does not appear in the statistics, and the seed that the Lord sows with World Youth Day is like the seed of which the Gospel speaks: part falls on the road and is lost; part falls on stone and is lost; part falls on thorns and is lost; but a part falls on good earth and gives much fruit.”
Unnoticed by the media, 2 million young people have embarked upon a journey which will lead many of them to infuse their home countries with their deeply held Christian beliefs. Slowly the world is going to change. Thirty years from now, the media is going to have one hell of a surprise.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet, which is where this article first appeared.