The Pope’s Young Army
I have just completed one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. For the past eight days, I participated in World Youth Day in Madrid, a gathering of some 1.5 million Catholic young people with Pope Benedict XVI. I met enthusiastic teen and twenty-something Catholics from the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, Nigeria, England, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, India, Denmark, and many other countries. The universality of the Church has never been, for me anyway, on fuller and more thrilling display. My Word on Fire team and I were especially encouraged to see so concretely the outreach that the Internet and the new media provide. To hear, over and again, and in dozens of different accents, that our videos and podcasts have made a difference in people’s lives was deeply gratifying.
Some images that will be forever burned in my memory: a twenty-thousand seat arena, absolutely filled with young Catholics rocking, stomping, and singing; Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, striding the stage like a pro, delivering one-liners worthy of David Letterman, and sharing the unvarnished Gospel with his youthful audience; giving a talk in a very hot room, jammed to the rafters with kids eager to hear about the process of discerning a vocation; hordes of young Catholics, wearing their distinctive yellow World Youth Day t-shirts, carrying overloaded backpacks, and marching through the streets of Madrid like a non-violent army; hundreds of fresh-faced religious in their distinctive habits, joyfully making their way through the various venues; tens of thousands of people kneeling in silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; the successor of Peter presiding over a crowd of one and a half million at an airfield southwest of Madrid; a steady stream of kids asking where they could find the adoration chapel or how they could arrange for confession; Benedict XVI himself, drenched with rain, but willing to stick it out with the giant crowd that was enduring a downpour in order to hear him. All of it rich, splendid, unforgettable.
But I would like to focus my reflections on a phenomenon that would actually be funny if it weren’t so tragic. I’m talking about the mainstream media’s extraordinary capacity to miss the point. Every night that I was in Madrid, I would return to my room after an incomparably rich day moving among the throngs of pilgrims and I would watch the news on CNN and the BBC. World Youth Day was, invariably, among the top stories, but the coverage was, not to put too fine a point on it, just bizarre. “Protestors descend on Madrid as the Pope arrives,” the BBC announcer would gravely intone; “The Pope was met today with strong opposition from secularists, gay rights activists, and Spaniards angry over World Youth Day’s cost to taxpayers,” the CNN anchorwoman would say, frowning into the camera. By the admission of the news reporters themselves, the number of protestors never reached beyond a few thousand, and not one event of World Youth Day was interrupted in the least by their demonstrations. There were, at most, a few scuffles between pilgrims and the protestors. But judging from the tone of the coverage, the average listener in the UK or the United States would have concluded that the Chicago riots of 1968 had broken out in the streets of Madrid. I actually laughed out loud when I focused in on some video of a “confrontation” between protestors and World Youth Day participants and noticed that at least half of the people in the picture were camera crews and reporters!
A million and a half young Catholics from all over the world come to celebrate their faith and to declare their solidarity with the Pope—and the networks obsess over a handful of protestors! I know that controversy sells papers and pleases sponsors, but anyone who was on the ground for World Youth Day couldn’t help but conclude there was something more at work in the gross discrepancy between reality and reportage. The dirty little secret is that the actual World Youth Day doesn’t fit the standard secularist narrative, according to which Catholicism is a corrupt, backward-looking, moribund ideology, destined to fade away as science advances and subjectivist moral relativism becomes normative. A small percentage of priests engage in sexually deviant behavior? Blanket coverage. An international army of young people marches through the hot sun and then sits patiently through a rainstorm to see the Pope? Ho-hum. That’s called reporting the news according to a set of fairly rigid ideological assumptions and imperatives.
The Catholic Church—at least in the West—is passing through a dark period, largely of its own making. But has the Catholic Church lost the future? The mainstream media wants you to think so. But any of those who experienced World Youth Day first hand would say, “Don’t you believe it.”