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World Youth Day is a microcosm of today’s Catholicism amidst the secular

HONG KONG (SE): Although World Youth Day has become a repetitive event and, even though it stretches over a whole week and still hangs onto the misnomer of day, which derived from the initial single-day celebration launched by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1985, it remains a call to young Catholics the world over to carry their Catholic identity with pride.

A 26-year-old Filipino woman, Kritzia Santos, put her finger on the pulse when she asked Pope Benedict XVI at a question and answer session immediately prior to the climatic overnight vigil at Madrid’s Cuatro Vientos Airport on August 20, how it is possible to follow a Christian vocation while immersing yourself in the to and fro of life in everyday, secular society.

While not the forum for an in depth response, the week-long series of catechesis, liturgical prayer, Masses celebrated for huge crowds and the camaraderie of hundreds of thousands of young Catholics encapsulates Pope Benedict’s cryptic “ground your deepest desires in Jesus” response.

On the plane between Rome and Madrid, Pope Benedict gave a hint of his overall message when he noted that World Youth Day gives a chance for young Catholics to refresh and strengthen their faith.

While the Days in the Diocese home-stay that characterises the immediate run up to the biggest, regularly held religious festival in the world is regarded as the deepest and most formative part of the festivities, it is hoped that young participants will go home with a stronger Catholic identity.

This identity is, to a large degree, described by the words spoken by the pope at his various engagements.

After the scene-setting opening Mass, the public celebration of the way of the cross brought the attention back onto the challenges facing young Christians in society today.

The meditations focussed on the defence of human life, peace in the Holy Land and the many areas of conflict around the world, natural disasters, religious persecution, drug and alcohol addiction and victims of sexual abuse.

Pope Benedict noted that suffering is common to every human being, as he exhorted the young people to focus on Christ’s suffering. He encouraged them to make their faith Christ-centric and ask themselves the question, “What can I do for him?”

He pointed out that because Christ became human, “Christ’s passion urges us to take upon our own shoulders the sufferings of the world, in the certainty that God is not distant or far removed from man and his troubles.”

The pope called the harsh wood of the cross a sign of the self-giving love that brings eternal life to those who ask for it.

“The cross was not a failure, but an expression of self-giving love,” he told the crowds in the streets.

In speaking to a buoyant group of young female religious and a more sombre gathering of under-40 university professors, Pope Benedict drew on his own experience as a teacher.

He warned against becoming a presenter of stand-alone, technical knowledge, divorced from the encouragement to learn to love truth and knowledge, and what it means to be created in God’s image.

“Young people need authentic teachers, persons open to the fullness of truth in the various branches of knowledge, persons who listen to and experience in their own hearts that interdisciplinary dialogue; persons, who, above all, are convinced of our human capacity to advance along the path of truth,” the pope counselled.

He added that the path to fullness calls for complete commitment with an understanding of love, faith and reason. The pope stressed to a group of young religious sisters, “In a world of relativism and mediocrity, we need that radicalism to which your consecration, as a way of belonging to God, who is loved above all things, bears witness.”

Speaking with seminarians, he stressed the value of service, pointing out that the life Jesus lived was one of service without counting the cost.

He counselled them to ask Christ to teach them how to imitate him in perfect charity towards all, so you do not shun sinners, but call them to convert, and to stay close to the sick and the poor.

Speaking to reporters on the plane, he used the image from the parable of the man going out to sow seed. “God sows silently,” he said. “Plants do not grow up right away in statistics.”

Like the seeds, he explained that some will fall by the wayside, but others will flourish. “However, that is human,” he commented.

He explained that freedom and truth are intimately connected. In condemning past practices of coercing people to believe, he said, “Truth is only accessible in freedom… Truth comes only from freely given assent.”

He spoke strongly in defence of the ability of the human mind to know and understand objective truth, and the ability of human reason to discover it.

He stressed that to deny that we can use reason to come to grips with objective truth is a ploy of the rich and powerful in this world, who wish to manipulate people for their own benefit, as it places every person at the whim of those who wield the power.

In summarising his basic message to the young Catholic people of the world, he returned to the response he gave at the question and answer session prior to the overnight vigil to the young Filipino woman, saying, “The economy is not measured by maximum profit, but by the good it brings everyone.”

As a festival, World Youth Day provides the opportunity for young people to be cool about being Catholic.

As a group of people who did not grow up in an authoritarian Church, they are more conscious of what the Church affirms than what it condemns and, especially in the west, since there is little to conserve about Catholic life, they will be the ones who will lead the Church into a new dialogue with a secular world in a manner they create themselves, not one they inherited from the past.

While World Youth Day does not spotlight making a cultural impact on society, it does provide an opportunity to grab hold of what it means to be Catholic in the world today rather than conserving fragments of the past.

The younger generations also show that they understand clearly that faith is a matter of personal choice and not a cultural inheritance.

As a group of people who did not grow up in an authoritarian Church, they are more conscious of what the Church affirms than what it condemns and, especially in the west, since there is little to conserve about Catholic life, they will be the ones who will lead the Church into a new dialogue with a secular world 

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