When Pope Francis met with Argentinean youth in Rio Thursday, he announced some of his expectations for the World Youth Day events that would unfold in the subsequent hours and days:
I would like us to make noise, I would like those inside the dioceses to go out into the open; I want the Church to be in the streets; I want us to defend ourselves against all that is worldliness, comfort, being closed and turned within – parishes, colleges, and institutions must get out otherwise they risk becoming NGOs, and the Church is not a non-governmental organization.
This NGO theme has been a recurring one since the start of his papacy. Depending on your role in or view of the Church, it may be an indictment, a wake-up call, a rallying cry, or a compelling reframing narrative that opens doors to those who have left the Church, considered it irrelevant, or never gave it a second thought.
On MSNBC and elsewhere, Pope Francis has been referred to in recent days as a “rock star.” Others have referred to him as the Tom Jones of the papacy, as people threw t-shirts at his open-air popemobile – which I am pretty sure is a papal first. But to think that World Youth Day or the Catholic Church today is about the person of Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, who just returned to the continent of his birth for the first time since leaving for the papal conclave after Pope Benedict’s shocking resignation news just before Lent, is to misunderstand what we have witnessed and what is going on — in Rio, Rome, and the universal Church. World Youth Day in Rio was a snapshot in countercultural renewal. Young people want something better than false freedom and something less than true love, as Pope Francis put it at various points during the weekend. The more than three million who gathered Sunday are rebels and theirs was quite a yell — a Heavenly opus, binding the evil agenda of Hell.
The pope was in Rio for the better part of a week, visiting men and women recovering from addiction, the poor in the slums of Rio, anyone along his routes who could get near him, his brother bishops, and, of course, the young, among others, on the first international apostolic journey of his pontificate. Some of the most emotional and telling moments were in prayer – particularly at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, where he lead his fellow Latin American bishops in compiling a real document (not all episcopal-conference documents are the product of real prayerful contemplation and pastoral sweat work, but this one was) seeking to confront the challenges facing the Church and the world on the continent.
In his homily at Aparecida, Pope Francis implored believers to an openness to being surprised by God:
God always surprises us, like the new wine in the Gospel we have just heard. God always saves the best for us. But he asks us to let ourselves be surprised by his love, to accept his surprises. Let us trust God! Cut off from him, the wine of joy, the wine of hope, runs out. If we draw near to him, if we stay with him, what seems to be cold water, difficulty, sin, is changed into the new wine of friendship with him.
His own apostolic journey and World Youth Day schedule was an exercise in openness to surprise. Pope Francis was able to actually break into mainstream TV news early in the week because of the security concerns raised after his window-rolled-down Fiat made a wrong turn, attracting swarms of people on the streets of Rio hoping to touch the successor of Peter, get a picture of him, or have their baby blessed — and kissed – by the pontiff.
And there was an unmistakable lesson in the surprises, and his peace with them. (If it involved more people having access to him, he clearly welcomed the changes to plans, having referred to being caged at least once publicly during the week.) Rain plagued most of the week and lead to location changes. During Saturday night’s prayer vigil, he made the venue change a teaching opportunity: “I think that we can learn something from what has taken place in these days, of how we had to cancel, due to bad weather, this Vigil in the Campus Fidei, at Guaratiba,” he told the three million young people gathered on the Copacabana beach, dubbed Popacabana by some World Youth Day participants and watchers. He continued:
Is the Lord not telling us, perhaps, that we ourselves are the true field of faith, the true Campus Fidei, and not some geographical location? Yes, it is true – each one of us, each one of you, me, everyone! To be missionary disciples means to know that we are the Field of Faith of God! Starting with the name of the place where we are, Campus Fidei, the field of faith, I have thought of three images that can help us understand better what it means to be a disciple and a missionary. First, a field is a place for sowing seeds; second, a field is a training ground; and third, a field is a construction site.
It was an exhausting, emotional, frank, invigorating week. The theme was one of evangelical Catholicism, as George Weigel has referred to the missionary work of the Church at the present moment, in an increasingly secular world where even Christians have fallen into secular habits and routines that have rendered all too many of us practical atheists (a John Paul II phrase) rather than disciples who have freely surrendered to a belief in God’s countercultural mission for each individual life.
Francis was at his most forceful when he talked about not allowing ourselves or anyone to be robbed of hope. And on Friday night, when preaching after the Stations of the Cross, he pointed to the message of the recent encyclical, The Light of Faith, almost entirely written by Pope Benedict XVI: That it is in Christ the believer can have confidence. He is the fulfillment of our hearts desire, who loves us more than we could have ever asked for. As Pope Francis put it:
The Cross of Christ contains all the love of God; there we find his immeasurable mercy. This is a love in which we can place all our trust, in which we can believe. Dear young people, let us entrust ourselves to Jesus, let us give ourselves over to him (cf. Lumen Fidei, 16), because he never disappoints anyone! Only in Christ crucified and risen can we find salvation and redemption. With him, evil, suffering, and death do not have the last word, because he gives us hope and life: he has transformed the Cross from being an instrument of hate, defeat and death to being a sign of love, victory, triumph and life.
And he challenged the World Youth Day pilgrims in the most intimate of ways:
the Cross of Christ invites us also to allow ourselves to be smitten by his love, teaching us always to look upon others with mercy and tenderness, especially those who suffer, who are in need of help, who need a word or a concrete action; the Cross invites us to step outside ourselves to meet them and to extend a hand to them. How many times have we seen them in the Way of the Cross, how many times have they accompanied Jesus on the way to Calvary: Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Mary, the women… Today I ask you: which of them do you want to be? Do you want to be like Pilate, who did not have the courage to go against the tide to save Jesus’ life, and instead washed his hands? Tell me: are you one of those who wash their hands, who feign ignorance and look the other way? Or are you like Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus to carry that heavy wood, or like Mary and the other women, who were not afraid to accompany Jesus all the way to the end, with love and tenderness. And you, who do you want to be? Like Pilate? Like Simon? Like Mary? Jesus is looking at you now and is asking you: do you want to help me carry the Cross? Brothers and sisters, with all the strength of your youth, how will you respond to him?
The heart of this year’s papal World Youth Day program was centered on prayer and sacrament: The message clearly being: You can’t give what you don’t have. As a priest friend preached on Sunday:
The greatest prayer of all we’re called to make to the Father for others and for ourselves, the most important door on which we’re called to knock continuously, is to enter into Jesus’ prayer from the Last Supper, from the Cross, and on Easter Sunday, which is the prayer of the Holy Mass. The prayer of the Mass is called to work a moral miracle of spiritual transformation in us. At the beginning of Mass, we confess our sins and failings, the way we haven’t lived in loving communion with God and brought others to know and share that love. But through the encouragement of the Word of God, through our prayers, and most importantly through receiving Jesus Christ within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re changed, renewed, and made capable of going forth to carry out together with Jesus his mission of the salvation of the world. The end of Mass is highly significant. God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit blesses us, and proclaims to us once more our Christian mission: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” And we respond, “Thanks be to God!,” because we know that this mission entrusted to us by God, is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given us. We also say “Thanks be to God!” because [we] know that as we carry out that mission God is continually blessing us and through us blessing those to whom we announce the Gospel.
And for those who watched this, the 28th World Youth Day, wondering if it might just be the kind of experience a young person in your life might benefit from, the next one is in Cracow in 2016. It will be the first World Youth Day after the canonization of John Paul II, the father of concept. The prospective combination of Pope Francis and Saint John Paul II, with the prayers of Benedict XVI from a convent in Rome or from the wedding feast beyond, promises to be spiritually explosive.
At the closing Mass, Pope Francis said:
Sharing the experience of faith, bearing witness to the faith, proclaiming the Gospel: this is a command that the Lord entrusts to the whole Church, and that includes you; but it is a command that is born not from a desire for domination or power but from the force of love, from the fact that Jesus first came into our midst and gave us, not a part of himself, but the whole of himself, he gave his life in order to save us and to show us the love and mercy of God. Jesus does not treat us as slaves, but as free men, as friends, as brothers and sisters; and he not only sends us, he accompanies us, he is always beside us in our mission of love.
So much of the conventional view of the Church lately has been one of a Church of no, irrelevant to the times. But this is a time for a revolutionary spirit to uplift men and women, from poverty, material and spiritual.
As he was headed to the airport Sunday evening, and back to Rome, the pope said to World Youth Day volunteers:
God calls you to make definitive choices, and he has a plan for each of you: to discover that plan and to respond to your vocation is to move toward personal fulfillment. God calls each of us to be holy, to live his life, but he has a particular path for each one of us. Some are called to holiness through family life in the sacrament of Marriage. Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion; in a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of “enjoying” the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, “for ever”, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes that you are incapable of responsibility, that you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage “to swim against the tide”. Have the courage to be happy.
Those are rallying words. And that’s what World Youth Day was: A pilgrimage, an announcement, a rally, a snapshot of and an act in revolutionary renewal.
What to make of World Youth Day? What happens the morning after? That depends on the daily decisions of pilgrims and anyone within the sound of its call – the Gospel call – to go and make disciples, to be not afraid to deprivatize religious faith but instead to be all-encompassing witnesses to Christianity at work, at home, at play. And if you listened in, you heard that this is not a threat to anyone except to my lazy heart. The missionary call is to propose the answers the faith provides by being a living witness to it with joy, in full knowledge of the pain in the world, courageously bearing every cross, knowing you’re not alone. It’s an exercise of true freedom, to say yes — a fiat – to an eternal call.
(I tweeted highlights at @kathrynlopez, losing followers for doing so along the way! Some good photos here. Videos, with translations, here. Texts here. My friend Austen Ivereigh has a good series of dispatches here. It’s in Spanish, but I couldn’t help but notice that ACI Prensa was doing some mad-fast updating throughout the pope’s near-week in Rome.)