Acton Commentary

Benedict and World Youth Day: Becoming Adults in Christ


Pope Benedict XVI is back in the international media spotlight this week, gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek, as he makes his first trip outside of Italy, to Cologne, Germany for the 20 th World Youth Day. That a Catholic youth gathering is now a global event worthy of such attention is a testament to Pope John Paul II; now the trip is presented as a sort of “test” for Benedict.

World Youth Day (WYD) has been celebrated outside of Rome every two or three years since 1985, and these were legendary gatherings during John Paul II’s pontificate. Millions of young Catholics came together from all parts of the world to pray with the Pope, and he seemed to be made for the occasion. Observers, including some in the Church’s bureaucracy, were continually astonished to see so many youth show such affection for John Paul.

Part of John Paul’s appeal to the young was certainly his courage, his wit, his previous experience as a stage actor. But more essential was his willingness to challenge young people not to settle for mediocrity in their spiritual lives. He urged them to love Christ, to follow Him, to become His saints, as he believed each one of them was called to be. God alone knows just how many souls were moved by this call over the years.

Not many people expect Pope Benedict to have the same power over the crowds gathered in Cologne, and no one expects Benedict to sing and joke with young people the way John Paul did. But these obvious signs of “enthusiasm” are not necessarily the right measure of success. After all, the problems facing the Church and society have only become more entrenched and will require serious theological and intellectual work. In short, it is time for the WYD crowd to grow up.

In a homily delivered April 18, a day prior to his papal election, Cardinal Ratzinger made headlines with the following words: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.” The phrase “dictatorship of relativism” describes the condition of children in faith, swept away by the latest trends and doctrines, which “seems the only attitude to cope with modern times.”

The late University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom noted the absolute relativism among university students in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and how this relativism is believed to be a moral postulate of the free society, rather than a theoretical insight. “The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism in not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary for openness, and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating,” wrote Bloom.

As an antidote to relativism, Pope Benedict proposes an adult faith, one “deeply rooted in friendship with Christ,” making “truth in love”. Young people need to be taught and shown that there is such a thing as knowable objective truth. They need to learn how freedom and moral responsibility work together and lead to a virtuous life. A society that does not recognize truth cannot defend itself when challenged, as Europe currently is, and World Youth Day is the perfect setting for this message.

The choice of Cologne for the 20 th WYD was not Benedict’s; it now appears providential. Besides serving as a homecoming for a German Pope, Cologne boasts an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral, a university that hosted Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus as teachers, and a Carmelite convent that housed St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and died in Auschwitz. If there is a place to show how the Christian faith shaped Europe and formed heroic persons even in its darkest hours, this is it.

Europe is a subject that Pope Benedict has made a priority early in his pontificate, and some early writings of Cardinal Ratzinger show his thoughts on the idea of “Europe” to be especially helpful today. For example, in a 1979 essay entitled “Europe: A heritage with obligations for Christians,” he wrote about Europe’s Greek, Christian, Latin, and Modern heritages, and how they formed Europe, apart from its strictly geographical or economic aspects. Various combinations of reason, revelation, morality, law, and freedom have been woven together, not always peacefully, to produce this entity. But the willful neglect of the Christian foundation undermines the rest.

Both the persistence of relativism and the secularism of democratic political life point to the ever-greater need for Catholic social doctrine, particularly as it was developed under John Paul II. And this is not only for the good of Catholics. With all the concerns in Europe about the compatibility between Islam and democracy, the secular tendency is to turn even further away from any religious belief that holds to truth as such.

In the homily cited earlier, Cardinal Ratzinger stressed the “dynamism” of Christian life:“We must be enlivened by a holy restlessness: a restlessness to bring to everyone the gift of faith, of friendship with Christ. Truly, the love and friendship of God was given to us so that it might also be shared with others. […] All people desire to leave a lasting mark. But what endures? Money does not. Even buildings do not, nor books. After a certain time, longer or shorter, all these things disappear. The only thing that lasts for ever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity.”

These words were addressed primarily to his brother cardinals, but here’s to hearing more of the same in Cologne and beyond.