The sight of more than a million young people turning out to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Madrid for World Youth Day was extraordinary – which is why it was so annoying of the BBC to focus its coverage so narrowly on the minuscule band of extremists who turned out to protest the night before. Because there is evidently something about this Pope that young people really relate to.
Now, it’s true that young Catholics were pretty keen on John Paul II as well. But I sense a peculiar sort of affection for Benedict XVI from young people; something that goes beyond the enthusiasm for John Paul II. For one thing, the present Pope is easily as charismatic as his predecessor. But while John Paul II was a skilful media operator who revelled in his frequent “photo ops” with the likes of Princess Di, there was always a feeling that JPII the man wasn’t quite the same individual as JPII the Pope. You might even go as far as to say that his personal charisma and his office were in tension with one another.
John Paul II’s Masses were sometimes uncomfortable marriages of prescribed ritual and modern culture, but there’s a particular genius about the way the present Pope interprets his role. And observe how, acting through his master of ceremonies, Mgr Guido Marini, he stamped his authority – and, at the same time, his personality – on the papal visit to Britain. That authority came across as authentic and compelling. And young people have natural desire to attach themselves to such charismatic figures.
In Benedict XVI, the public and private seem to be in much closer harmony. His ability to blend his own personality with the grandeur of his office seems to be leading young people to feel a personal connection with him that they don’t with a faceless diocesan bureaucracy.
His kindliness and grandfatherly demeanour appeal to them, because they seem more genuine than the cringeworthy attempts to “reach out” that young Catholics are so often made to suffer.
Many of the last few years’ liturgical reforms and encouragements, such as the “Benedictine” altar arrangement, have the effect of reducing attention on the celebrant, while adding solemnity to the proceedings with their dramatic symbols and more elevating music.
Nowhere is the failure of the Church to connect with young people better illustrated than on its own websites. This is a subject on which I’ve written at length before, so I won’t bang on about it too much, except to make one observation: navigate to the “youth” page of our own Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’s website and the most prominent graphic you’ll see is for National Youth Sunday… 2009. I wonder what a generation brought up on Twitter makes of that.
One can only imagine what young Catholics think when they read the leaflets distributed to them, hoping to find relevant information about the faith and instead being bombarded with Left-wing propaganda about “action for justice”. It doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the Holy Father’s warnings about the dangers of relativism and secularisation, that’s for sure. Nor his teachings on “the dead-end streets of consumerism”, which he says are a particular threat to young people.
Back in 2007, in reference to ever-worsening preoccupations among the young with fashion and self-image, Benedict XVI noted: “How sad it is when young people lose the marvel, the enchantment, of the most beautiful feelings, the value of respect for one’s body.”
Of course, not all teenagers are in hock to the excesses of Jersey Shore. So, as we experience what must surely be the apex of grotesque celebrity obsession in society at large, no wonder the Pope’s message speaks so loudly to the young.
In fact, there’s an unmistakable, resurgent conservatism among many young Catholics at present – just as there is among young Jews and Muslims. Some Church leaders seem unwilling or unable to relate to this renaissance in traditional worship because they’re men of the 70s. So, too, it has to be said, are many of the people in charge of Catholic media outlets and other Catholic organisations, which may explain why they struggle to produce credible content that appeals to teenagers and young adults.
But if bishops’ conferences, and even some parts of the Catholic media, are uncomfortable with this new young conservatism, Benedict XVI is not. In fact, it’s something he shares with the upcoming generation. As Cardinal Ratzinger, this Pope was known to be sceptical of bureaucracies, and of bishops’ conferences in particular, as a way of connecting people to the Church. Yes, they play an important part in mobilising young people to attend events like World Youth Day, but one wonders whether they’re really the best institutional model to safeguard the future of the Church when they struggle so badly to cultivate enthusiasm from the young.
(There’s also the fact that the Vatican has traditionally played very safe with episcopal appointments, leading to a dearth of charismatic bishops in some countries. American bishops like Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston are the exception, not the rule, as I discovered when I met him in Texas in 2008. And on the subject of Galveston-Houston, check out the archdiocese’s website if you get chance: it’s a model of what a modern Church site ought to look like.)
Thus – and I hope this is not too extravagant, or perhaps I mean hopeful, a suggestion – there’s a sort of contraction going on in what you might call the middle management tier of the Catholic Church. A collapse, even, as young people, who are looking for direct and charismatic leadership in tune with their own politics, and even liturgical inclinations, reach out directly to the Holy Father.
Pope Benedict XVI’s honesty, rigour and scrupulousness – despite opposition, even from within the Church – strike many as heroic, and represent a kind of personal leadership that is entirely absent from other corners of public life. Is it any wonder 1.5 million young people showed up last week to celebrate his arrival in Madrid?