If you preach it, they will come

There were intriguing similarities between last month’s World Youth Day in Toronto and World Youth Day 1993 in Denver.

In both instances, the Pope’s choice of city struck some as odd, for both Denver and Toronto pride themselves on their aggressive secularity: good living without God, so to speak. The U.S. hierarchy and its conference staff had not been very enthusiastic about WYD1993; the Canadian bishops’ conference and its staff were not brimful of enthusiasm when the Pope chose Toronto as the site of WYD2002. Predictions of failure were widespread before WYD in Denver; a week before WYD2002, Toronto organizers and Vatican press briefers were already spinning excuses about an expected low turnout. In the run-up to WYD2002, as in the months before WYD1993, only Pope John Paul II seemed unfazed, confident that young people throughout the world would answer his call to witness to and celebrate their Catholic faith.

Guess who was right?

With apologies to “Field of Dreams” fans, the primary lesson of WYD2002 is, “If you preach it, they will come.” Some three hundred fifty thousand young people came — the very people the Catholic left and much of the press insists are “alienated” by the “authoritarianism” of John Paul II and his “unbending” teaching on sexual morality. And they stunned secular Toronto by their good humor amidst a lack of creature comforts (my daughter and the teenage group she helped lead had a hose, not a shower, with which to bathe for a week), their enthusiasm, their courtesy, and, above all, their faith. As one Canadian friend said, after watching several hundred thousand teenagers and young adults walk the Way of the Cross through the sparkling downtown of Canada’s largest city, “I can’t believe this is happening in Toronto.” The Pope believed it would happen. It did. If you preach it, they will come.

The crowd swelled to eight hundred thousand for the closing WYD Mass at Toronto’s Downsview Park. Torrential rains and high winds buffeted the venue in the hours before Mass and as the Pope arrived; people laughed and sang. It was also instructive that the first spontaneous and sustained eruption of applause came when, in his homily, John Paul II issued an unsparing call for fidelity as the answer to the crisis of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance. As I said on MSNBC during that stirring moment, the Pope was telling those present that they were the future of the Church — and they were accepting the charge.

WYD1993 had a profound impact on the Archdiocese of Denver, which is arguably the most vibrant metropolitan see in the U.S. today, and on the Church throughout the United States. One hopes the same thing happens in Toronto and throughout Canada. Many Canadian bishops have deeply internalized the secular high culture’s claim that the Church and the faith are marginal to the real modern world. On this understanding, the Church is, at best, a kind of museum where good, multicultural Canadians are taught “tolerance.”

John Paul II and the legions he drew to Toronto are living refutations of this theological and ecclesiastical defeatism. The Pope did not preach some vague “spirituality” of “tolerance;” the WYD pilgrims committed themselves to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church. That, they understood, was the way to a fulfilled human life and to a profound respect for others.

Canada’s high culture insists that serious commitment to a particular religious tradition is a prescription for bigotry. WYD2002 demonstrated that true tolerance — engaging differences with respect for the other — begins, in the Christian case, with the conviction that Jesus Christ reveals the meaning of human life.

WYD2002 should also have an impact in the U.S. Few bishops seemed to grasp that WYD could be both the answer and the antidote to the scandal-time of the last seven months. WYD was not aggressively promoted in many dioceses and the result was clear: perhaps 60,000 U.S. pilgrims. There should have been 60,000 from New York State alone.

“If you preach it, they will come:” that is what John Paul II believes, lives, and demonstrates. That is what the Church in Canada and the U.S, and especially Catholic leaders, must rediscover.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash