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”!
XVI. The Pope has made it respectable to reject the political correctness which
undermines moral striving. Obviously world leaders are listening.
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
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
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
“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.”
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.
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