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.