Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Evening to Remember

You couldn’t say we didn’t see it coming. Actually, it had been all around us for at least an hour, the darkening sky lit up with so many impressive lightning bolts. But when the wind really started to blow and when the rain really started to pour down on us, we were surprised by the ferocity of the storm, all one million of us.

We had gathered a few hours before in the setting sun, waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to join us for a prayer vigil on the open fields of the Cuatro Vientos air force base in Madrid. I was one of a thousand bishops sitting up on a huge stage, mixed in with at least as many young people chosen from among the crowd. This prayer vigil was to be the high point of World Youth Day The plan was that five young adults would bring forth questions representative of the kinds of questions young Catholics around the world ask themselves; a passage of the Gospel would be read; and the Pope would answer those questions in the light of the Gospel.
Well, the questions were asked, something like: “How do we know God is with us? How can we be faithful? How can we live our convictions in societies that don’t seem to support them? How can we explain our faith to those who don’t share it?” And the Gospel was indeed proclaimed.
But then, the world went crazy, and the winds howled, and the rains came down. Some of us on stage had been given umbrellas. I was in the first row of a section, and with those on my right and on my left, we set them in front of us like shields since the rain was slashing across the stage horizontally.
The World Youth Day Cross, some ten feet high, had been set up facing the crowd next to us on the stage: the wind blew it down upon the bishops, some of whom got knocked to the ground, bruised and bleeding. Young volunteers hurried to the rescue. We were all were getting drenched, our nice solemn bishops’ robes turning into old sodden rags.
And a million young people sang and danced. The harder the wind blew, the stronger the rain came, the louder they cheered. It was one of the most incredible scenes I have ever witnessed. Though I was too far to see, I learned afterwards that the Pope was surrounded by aides, holding many umbrellas up around him to keep him dry. But he stayed on. And after the worst was over, he told the crowd he would skip his speech (they could always read it on the internet later), but he would not skip the intense moment of prayer known as adoration.
So as the rain let up after what seemed like at least half an hour of fury, a priest came out with the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, and a million young people fell to their knees, and a deep, calm silence slowly blanketed the field. I don’t know that I have ever heard a more beautiful, inspiring or moving sound than those ten minutes of total silence kept by one million people.
Non-Catholics (and some Catholics, unfortunately) will have trouble understanding this, but we believe that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ makes himself present to us in this sacrament. The silence of a million young adults last Saturday evening, after the fury of that storm, will remain for me the most powerful witness to the truth of that divine presence.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Images from Madrid

I write this from Madrid where I am participating in the World Youth Days, an event that, every couple of years, gathers young adults from across the world in a celebration of faith in Jesus-Christ within the Roman Catholic tradition. It is difficult to give a coherent account of what is happening here, so I’ve decided just to note some of the many images that stay with me. Here goes.

Hundreds of thousands of young people gathered to welcome the Pope in the heart of Madrid.

Thirty-eight degrees centigrade in the sun at six p.m., with no hope that the night will get any cooler.

Talking with a young man from France who is all excited to meet a bishop from Canada because his mother is originally from Vancouver.

Listening to the questions that young adults have: Why did God give us freedom when we abuse it so much? How can you love someone who makes himself unlovable? How can you share your faith with someone who just doesn’t get it? How can you keep the joy of World Youth Days alive when you go back to the ordinariness of daily life? Does God really want me to become a priest? Does God really love me?

Trying to answer their questions in five minutes or less.

Having lunch at 2:00 p.m., siesta at 4:00 p.m., and supper at 10:30 p.m.

The deep silence of a thousand young adults crammed into a church, just after they’ve received communion at Mass.

A young woman showing me her notes taken during my catechesis, scribbled in ink on her arm because she had no paper with her.

Eight hundred young adults sharing the floor of a school gym for the night, with only four showers and five bathrooms for all… and yet singing on their way to the first activity of the morning.

Chatting with a young bishop from Cambodia where, a couple of decades after all that country’s Catholics were basically slaughtered during Pol Pot’s regime of terror, there are now 20,000 young converts trying to rebuild the Church.

Seeing flags from a hundred different countries being flown side by side in peace, goodwill and harmony.

Listening to the Pope remind young people that faith in Jesus is key to a joyful, meaningful life.

Sharing a prayer service with the 6,000 Canadian delegates to this event, and then moving quickly to allow the 6,000 Australian delegates to take over the space and do the same.

Singing the theme song in Spanish, French, Italian and English.

Learning to say “Muchissimas gracias!” to all the citizens of Madrid for their generous welcome and hospitality.

Smiling and crying at the same time.

Planning to do it all over again in 2013 in Rio de Janeiro.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Third catechesis for World Youth Day

The big event is coming soon... Today, I thought I'd share with you the content of the third catechesis or faith-lesson I will be giving to French-speaking participants at the upcoming World Youth Days in Madrid. The specific theme of this third catechesis will be “Witnesses to Christ in the World”.

People who come to faith in Jesus-Christ often testify that their lives have been transformed by that faith. They speak of new purpose and new meaning, leading to a hope and a joy they had never known before. We can only imagine what the world would be like if all people came to that faith. No longer would our society be characterized by selfishness, broken families, hatred between individuals and nations, and a great deficit of love, joy and hope. Instead, in a world where individuals and nations accepted God’s presence, worshiped him in truth and listened to his voice, a civilization of love would flourish, a civilization in which the dignity of all is respected, and communion increases, with all its benefits.

It is such of vision of individual lives and communities transformed that lies at the heart of Christians’ motivations to share the treasure of their faith. Every baptized person is called to this mission. The call to evangelize is not reserved to just a few members of the Church. It is a command and a grace for all the baptized.

Moreover, it is not possible to really live out one’s faith in Christ without bearing witness because, as John Paul II once said, “faith is strengthened when it is given to others”. Young people must be active participants in this new era of missionary activity. Jesus Christ is calling on them to devote their lives to witnessing to God’s love to all people, and in a special way to their own contemporaries.

To evangelize is to allow Jesus Christ to be seen through our words and actions. We are also called to speak out explicitly about our faith and to witness to God’s action in our lives. We are encouraged to transform our behaviour so that the face of Jesus Christ can be seen.

Then we will work with Jesus by serving the world generously with special attention to the poor. This is how young people will be able to play their part in bringing about a more incisive Christian presence, like “salt of the earth and light of the world” (cf Mt 5:13-14). They will help to bring about a new humanity and a revolution of love.

There have been, and still are, many Christians who are living witnesses of the power of faith that is expressed in charity. They have been peacemakers, promoters of justice and workers for a more humane world, a world in accordance with God’s plan. With competence and professionalism, they have been committed in different sectors of the life of society, contributing effectively to the welfare of all. The charity that comes from faith led them to offer concrete witness by their actions and words. Young people today are called to walk in their footsteps, following their example, building on that beautiful heritage.

We need to realize that Christ is not a treasure meant for us alone; he is the most precious treasure we have, one that is meant to be shared with others. In our age of globalization, young people are called to be witnesses of Christian hope all over the world. Faithful, joy-filled hope is one of the greatest needs of our world today.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Second Catechesis for World Youth Day

Soon I will be in Madrid, participating in the World Youth Days as a bishop-catechist. In my previous post, I presented the theme of the first of the three catecheses or faith-lessons I will be giving to groups of French-speaking participants. This week, I want to share with you the outlines of my second catechesis. Its theme, continuing to build on Colossians 2:7, will be “Established in Jesus Christ”.

Young people are laying the foundations for their lives. Choosing the cornerstone of that foundation is among the most serious decisions they will ever make. Our post-modern society suggests that there are no solid cornerstones to be found, that one should simply build willy-nilly following the fashions of the day or the desires of the moment. But this leads to rootless lives, lives that have no direction, no purpose, no meaning.

The Christian faith proposes that the only true and faithful cornerstone is Jesus-Christ himself. To choose to be “established in Christ” means to set Jesus at the very heart of our lives, to live a deep, personal relationship with him. As Benedict XVI once wrote: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. To be a Christian means to be “grafted” to Christ like branches to a vine: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

Such a proposition invites each of us to reflect deeply on the question: “Who is Jesus Christ for me?” Different people will give different answers to this question, depending on their knowledge, life experience, commitments and faith. For the Church, the answer is clear: Jesus is God who became a human being like us. He is the Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. In his conception and birth, God became present and close to us. Jesus Christ manifests the Love of God the Father who entered into the lives of humankind .

Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) because he is the Saviour who freed us from sin and death. In the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, he fully reveals humanity to itself and brings to light its very high calling. Jesus Christ is God’s response to the great aspirations of humankind.

However, there is even more to the reality of Jesus. Not only does he stand before us as the ultimate revelation of God’s mystery and our humanity, Jesus also wants to draw us into his circle of friends. He wants to establish a covenant with us. He invites us to live with Him in every aspect of our lives. He invites us to be holy. Holiness is the fullness of life in Christ.

Like the Apostle Thomas after the resurrection, we would like to be able to see, to touch, to hear Jesus. The gift of faith allows us to hear him in the Gospels, to touch him in the sacraments, to see him in the poor and the needy. In prayer, we can converse with him and learn to put our trust in him.

We have been baptized in Christ; but our baptism means very little if we do not truly enter into relationship with Christ, responding with all our being to the love he has for us. This is what it means to be “established in Jesus Christ”.

First Catechesis for World Youth Day

“Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith” (cf Col 2:7): this is the theme that Pope Benedict XVI has proposed for the upcoming World Youth Days in Madrid. Along with many other bishops from various nations, I will be leading three days of reflection on this theme; in my case, with French-language groups. The first catechesis I will give will focus on the challenge for young people today to be “firm in faith”.

Many young Catholics have shared with me how difficult they find it to remain faithful to Jesus, his teaching and his Church. We live in a society where God is often forgotten. There is a

kind of “eclipse of the sense of God”, a widespread secularism that eliminates God from the public sphere.

Obviously, it is not the role of the state or society to determine which religion is true, or whether people should believe in God. However, it does seem strange that the state or society should ask people to simply forget the fundamental reality that gives meaning to their lives when they engage in the world.

If God is the source of life, then human beings who have no conscious reference to their Creator risk losing their sense of dignity and identity. This forgetfulness of God is at the root of many of society’s problems.

In a context like ours, there is an urgent need to discover anew the primacy of God in people’s lives. As the Pope himself once said: “Everything changes depending on whether God exists or not”.

To believe in God, to believe that Jesus Christ was sent by God, is not only an intellectual option. It is a choice that reorients life, gives it a new dimension, alters the way the world is seen and engaged.

Believers acknowledge that this choice is itself a blessing, a free gift from God. It is God who makes the first step, who comes to us and engages us in the depths of our being. Ultimately, faith is a living relationship with God.

The Apostle Philip once asked Jesus: “Show us the Father”. Jesus answered: “Whoever sees me, sees the Father”. Christian faith sees in Jesus-Christ the mediator between God and humanity, the one who leads us to the Father and reveals the Father to us. The encounter with Jesus is therefore at the heart of faith.

To believe is to make a fundamental life choice. It is a choice that believers claim gives meaning to life and joy to the heart. To live in faith is to live in love and hope.

Though faith is a deeply personal act, it is also a profoundly communal act. We do not believe alone, but with others. This is why the Church plays such an important role in the believer’s life: leading to faith, sharing faith, supporting the faith journey. Young people need a Church that will welcome them, listen to them, work with them. And the Church needs young people who will enrich it with their insights, their creativity and their energy.

One last point: reason alone cannot give birth to faith, but it can help lead to faith, in the same way that a guide can lead a thirsty person to an oasis. As we reflect on life, reason is brought up short by its own limitations as it confronts the ultimate mystery. This is where faith takes over from reason, as we walk into the deep mystery of the source of life which births all reality.