Monday, July 30, 2007

The Song of the Cross

After a delay of some days, Pope Benedict's message for next summer's World Youth Day in Sydney was released earlier this week.

Taken from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the theme of the 15-20 July gathering will be "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses."

Snips (emphases original):
Shortly before his Ascension, Jesus said to his disciples: "And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you" (Lk 24:49). This took place on the day of Pentecost when they were together in prayer in the Upper Room with the Virgin Mary. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the nascent Church was the fulfilment of a promise made much earlier by God, announced and prepared throughout the Old Testament.

In fact, right from its opening pages, the Bible presents the spirit of God as the wind that "was moving over the face of the waters" (cf. Gen 1:2). It says that God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life (cf. Gen 2:7), thereby infusing him with life itself. After original sin, the life-giving spirit of God is seen several times in the history of humankind, calling forth prophets to exhort the chosen people to return to God and to observe his commandments faithfully. In the well-known vision of the prophet Ezekiel, God, with his spirit, restores to life the people of Israel, represented by the "dry bones" (cf. 37:1-14). Joel prophesied an "outpouring of the spirit" over all the people, excluding no one. The sacred author wrote: "And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh ... Even upon the menservants and maidservants, in those days, I will pour out my spirit" (3:1-2)....

On the evening of the day of resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, "he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’" (Jn 20:22). With even greater power the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: "And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them" (2:2-3).

The Holy Spirit renewed the Apostles from within, filling them with a power that would give them courage to go out and boldly proclaim that "Christ has died and is risen!" Freed from all fear, they began to speak openly with self-confidence (cf. Acts 2:29; 4:13; 4:29,31). These frightened fishermen had become courageous heralds of the Gospel. Even their enemies could not understand how "uneducated and ordinary men" (cf. Acts 4:13) could show such courage and endure difficulties, suffering and persecution with joy. Nothing could stop them. To those who tried to silence them they replied: "We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). This is how the Church was born, and from the day of Pentecost she has not ceased to spread the Good News "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

If we are to understand the mission of the Church, we must go back to the Upper Room where the disciples remained together (cf. Lk 24:49), praying with Mary, the "Mother", awaiting the Spirit that had been promised. This icon of the nascent Church should be a constant source of inspiration for every Christian community. Apostolic and missionary fruitfulness is not principally due to programmes and pastoral methods that are cleverly drawn up and "efficient", but is the result of the community’s constant prayer (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 75). Moreover, for the mission to be effective, communities must be united, that is, they must be "of one heart and soul" (cf. Acts 4:32), and they must be ready to witness to the love and joy that the Holy Spirit instils in the hearts of the faithful (cf. Acts 2:42). The Servant of God John Paul II wrote that, even prior to action, the Church’s mission is to witness and to live in a way that shines out to others (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 26). Tertullian tells us that this is what happened in the early days of Christianity when pagans were converted on seeing the love that reigned among Christians: "See how they love one another" (cf. Apology, 39 § 7)....

Many young people view their lives with apprehension and raise many questions about their future. They anxiously ask: How can we fit into a world marked by so many grave injustices and so much suffering? How should we react to the selfishness and violence that sometimes seem to prevail? How can we give full meaning to life? How can we help to bring it about that the fruits of the Spirit mentioned above, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (no. 6), can fill this scarred and fragile world, the world of young people most of all? On what conditions can the life-giving Spirit of the first creation and particularly of the second creation or redemption become the new soul of humanity? Let us not forget that the greater the gift of God - and the gift of the Spirit of Jesus is the greatest of all – so much the greater is the world’s need to receive it and therefore the greater and the more exciting is the Church’s mission to bear credible witness to it. You young people, through World Youth Day, are in a way manifesting your desire to participate in this mission. In this regard, my dear young friends, I want to remind you here of some key truths on which to meditate. Once again I repeat that only Christ can fulfil the most intimate aspirations that are in the heart of each person. Only Christ can humanize humanity and lead it to its "divinization". Through the power of his Spirit he instils divine charity within us, and this makes us capable of loving our neighbour and ready to be of service. The Holy Spirit enlightens us, revealing Christ crucified and risen, and shows us how to become more like Him so that we can be "the image and instrument of the love which flows from Christ" (Deus Caritas Est, 33). Those who allow themselves to be led by the Spirit understand that placing oneself at the service of the Gospel is not an optional extra, because they are aware of the urgency of transmitting this Good News to others. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded again that we can be witnesses of Christ only if we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit who is "the principal agent of evangelization" (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 75) and "the principal agent of mission" (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 21). My dear young friends, as my venerable predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II said on several occasions, to proclaim the Gospel and bear witness to the faith is more necessary than ever today (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 1). There are those who think that to present the precious treasure of faith to people who do not share it means being intolerant towards them, but this is not the case, because to present Christ is not to impose Him (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 80). Moreover, two thousand years ago twelve Apostles gave their lives to make Christ known and loved. Throughout the centuries since then, the Gospel has continued to spread by means of men and women inspired by that same missionary fervour. Today too there is a need for disciples of Christ who give unstintingly of their time and energy to serve the Gospel. There is a need for young people who will allow God’s love to burn within them and who will respond generously to his urgent call, just as many young blesseds and saints did in the past and also in more recent times. In particular, I assure you that the Spirit of Jesus today is inviting you young people to be bearers of the good news of Jesus to your contemporaries. The difficulty that adults undoubtedly find in approaching the sphere of youth in a comprehensible and convincing way could be a sign with which the Spirit is urging you young people to take this task upon yourselves. 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. This opens up the vast world of young people’s emotions, work, education, expectations, and suffering ... Each one of you must have the courage to promise the Holy Spirit that you will bring one young person to Jesus Christ in the way you consider best, knowing how to "give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but [to] do it with gentleness and reverence" (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

In order to achieve this goal, my dear friends, you must be holy and you must be missionaries since we can never separate holiness from mission (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 90). Do not be afraid to become holy missionaries like Saint Francis Xavier who travelled through the Far East proclaiming the Good News until every ounce of his strength was used up, or like Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus who was a missionary even though she never left the Carmelite convent. Both of these are "Patrons of the Missions". Be prepared to put your life on the line in order to enlighten the world with the truth of Christ; to respond with love to hatred and disregard for life; to proclaim the hope of the risen Christ in every corner of the earth.
Earlier this month, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard helmed an official delegation to greet the World Youth Day Cross as it arrived in Sydney, beginning a yearlong trek across the continent-nation.

* * *

Away from the event that became the triennial centerpiece and greatest joy of his pontificate, WYD's founder -- i.e. the Servant of God John Paul II -- could be overheard saying that, while some thought "the purpose of World Youth Day is the salvation of the youth," in his mind, "è per la conversione dei Vescovi"...

...that is, it was meant even more "for the conversion of the bishops."

Five years ago this week, in his last Transatlantic journey, John Paul came to Toronto for the largest gathering in Canada's history, his final pilgrimage to the event that, over two decades, drew tens of millions of the church's rising generation to what the event's director, Basilian Fr Thomas Rosica, called "the new Mt Sinais" of Paris, Manila and Denver "to receive the new law of the Beatitudes."

John Paul chose the theme "You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world" for his final World Youth Day, and the flame ignited at Downsview Park and Exhibition Place remains alive both in the many veterans of the experience, who've taken it with them into countless forms of mission, and especially in the work of GMG'02's firstborn fruit, Salt + Light TV. To commemorate the fifth anniversary of its seminal event, the network has produced (and webstreamed) a moving retrospective of the days, The Song of the Cross.

To enter the network's studios on Richmond Street -- populated by many of the original WYD leadership team -- is to find that, just as with my beloved spiritual hometown in the Rockies, World Youth Day never really left Toronto. There, for all the chatter and conflict outside its walls over the church's direction, one finds the concrete realization of the future's best promise and highest hopes: a group whose faith is marked less by ideology than inspiration, its fervor advertised by the alluring light of that pure, uplifting joy possessed by those intrepid souls whose faith calls them, simply, to love and to work.

Then, as now, the director -- a university chaplain and lecturer in the Scriptures before being tapped to lead what became a planning team of almost 400 -- took a page from John Paul's playbook, ensuring that the work of an event for the young wouldn't be planned out by dispassionate, seasoned "pros," but by the core of its target.

"The risk of the World Youth Day," Rosica said at the time, "was that a number of adults would get together, who would be experts, who would put on an event for young people. And it's always a risk because there's a lot of goodwill and a great desire to do things -- [but] there's also a presumption that young people don't know what they're doing. I've never bought into that."

"The only way that we can make a difference," he said, "especially in the church, and work with young people, is by doing things with them and for them, together. And I believed from the beginning that if this event was going to be a success in Canada, it had to be an event where the young people were at the heart of the organization: to take ownership of it, to appropriate it, to lead it and to guide it. And I was criticized heavily for this: by the church, by people in the church and by people watching from outside saying, 'These young people will let you down -- they won't deliver, they won't be punctual, they won't take this seriously.' And I smiled each time I heard that, and I said, 'Watch!'"

The result: "This particular group," he said, "never let us down."

"The commitment, the generosity, the devotion, the faith, the love, the energy. And, see, the World Youth Day was the pretext -- these young people learned to become leaders in the church, in society, and how to transform culture."

It wasn't Rosica's only unconventional decision whose payoff was as great as the proposal was daring.

In a move unheard of for his 100-plus foreign trips -- Polish homecomings excepted -- John Paul's Canadian jaunt saw him take several days on vacation at the Basilian retreat of Strawberry Island. While the public record of the days is well-known and the papal speeches belong to posterity, many of the trip's most emotional moments took place north of the city, a chopper ride away from the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. For the rest of his life, the outdoorsman pontiff never failed to mention the island whenever a Canuck found their way to the papal apartment.

At one point during his stay, at the Pope's urging, John Paul's aides asked if a children's hospital were nearby for an impromptu papal visit. It happened to be mid-day, just as the young patients of one nearby facility would take their daily paddle-boat rides on Lake Simcoe.

Within minutes, a boat was secured for the Holy Father's use. As he sat on the deck and the kids noticed him, they came closer to the boat as John Paul's longtime secretary, then-Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, handed him rosaries to toss overboard to them.

The island retreat also hosted a papal lunch with representatives of the young pilgrims, a tradition begun in Rome in 2000 when John Paul hosted some of the attendees at the Pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

Following the meal, a youth sing-along of Beatles' hits was all ready to go. The one person who could, however, put a stop to it did so, saying -- irrespective of the Fab Four's country of origin -- "Enough of this American music!"

Instead, he asked his guests to sing in their own languages.

Identifying a German pilgrim, the papal voice boomed, "You are German -- we sing Stille Nacht [Silent Night]!" And they all did. When a young woman from New York told the pontiff that she shared her 18 May birthday with John Paul, he replied, "Then we can sing 'Happy Birthday.'"

Again, they all did.

Returning to Toronto, the Pope -- for whom the young were said to be as strengthening as medicine -- told his crowd of 850,000 gathered on a military tarmac that "You are young, and the Pope is old.

"82 or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23," he said. But even in the midst of his infirmities, "I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young."

"You are our hope," John Paul said, in what became his farewell message to the generation forever linked with him.

"[T]he young are our hope."

In his weekly op-ed column in yesterday's Toronto Sun, at the end of a weekend rich in memories whose seeds have borne great fruit, the event's director said that, while "the summer of 2002 woke up the country and the church in Canada, reminding us that the church is alive and young... one thing is clear" in its wake:

"We have much work to do in reaching out to young people across this vast land."

The "vast land" of that charge doesn't just lie north of the 49th Parallel, but to the whole mission field of a church in a world where crises of relationship, of self-worth, of intimacy and of truth have spread like weeds in every place where the message of faith, of love, of true freedom isn't presented with the conviction and the courage that allows it to be heard and heeded.

More often than not, other forces have been blamed for its lack of a captive audience. But this short-sighted and convenient way of thinking ignores the reality that any failure to reach out, to be credible, to be relevant in telling and living a story whose value has been proven by the experience of 2,000 years in every environment imaginable is firstly and foremostly our own, and no headway can be made without realizing that accomplishing the work begins not with words, but with witness.

This isn't to say that that's easy, but that's the point: it isn't, it's not supposed to be. And anyone who talks or acts otherwise isn't doing it right.

A couple months ago, I told a group of my peers that the way forward was keenly captured in a line from a more-recent song: "Turn on all the lights / Make it louder."

Lest there be any confusion, "make it louder" doesn't mean "make it jarring." Anyone who's ever heard a blown-out amplifier -- and, consequently, watched people trampling each other to run away from it -- knows how it perverts the beautiful sound it's meant to convey. "Make it louder" means nothing more than, simply, that nothing worth passing along should ever found in a barely-audible mumble; you see, not for nothing does "confidence" have at its root "fide" -- the Latin word for "faith."

The father who gave my generation the faith -- and the faith in itself -- to sing has since gone to the Father's house. He doesn't just see us, bless us and cheer us on still from its window, but his example and his call remains: "Sing louder."

As the next guardians of a flame first kindled not at the CN Tower, but in the Cenacle, may we always be given the courage, the support, and the space to keep it alight.