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August 30, 2005:

Pope Benedict Calls for Youth to Reject “Consumer” Religion
by Jon M. Sweeney

Pope Benedict XVI is no stranger to theological argument. Prior to becoming pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was for almost a quarter of a century prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That’s a complicated job title meaning that he was the primary watchdog in the Vatican on the lookout for heresy around the world. Long ago, he identified cultural and theological relativism as the number one enemy against religious faith and truth.

That message reached a very large and influential audience about a week and a half ago in Cologne, Germany. The event was known as World Youth Day, founded by Pope John Paul II in 1984. Held in a different country every three years, the German event in August brought out more than one million young people on Sunday, August 21 alone. This was an audience that Madison Avenue spends millions to impress with its latest fashions, beer brand spins, and reality television shows, but Pope Benedict presented a message that is very counter-culture. On August 21, he spoke plainly to teenagers and others (many of whom had camped out overnight on the grass in order to obtain good vantage points to see and listen) that it shouldn’t be easy to be a Christian today.

Pope John Paul II, who is now being called Pope John Paul the Great by those who are already clamoring for his sainthood, could whip up a crowd with his charisma and knack for telling stories about his own youth. Young people rallied and celebrated the conservative, counter-cultural messages of John Paul. In contrast, Pope Benedict XVI speaks like a theologian; he comes across as bookish, rather than life-experienced. The two popes have the same message for today’s young Catholics, but John Paul seemed better able to pull it off, with warmth and humor.

The message is simple: Don’t be fooled by the culture; don’t believe that truth is relative; put a priority on God, the Church, and family. But most of all, both popes have told today’s young people to stand up for orthodox Christianity, even (and especially) when that may be unpopular. Both popes have consistently asked young adults to reject the cultural trend that says accepting those who believe differently equals not contradicting them, as well. Instead they counsel youth to take a stand for truth.

At World Youth Day, Pope Benedict said: “There can be no false compromise, no watering down of the Gospel.” He also said: “If [a personal belief in God] is pushed too far, religion becomes a consumer product. Religion constructed on a ‘do-it-yourself’ basis cannot ultimately help us.”

Reports differed as to how enthusiastic the crowd was to the Pope’s message. It was the same message that had been delivered by Pope John Paul II for twenty-five years, but it lacked John Paul’s personality. Crowd-savvy and a former actor, John Paul led young people almost “by the hand” to his beliefs—at least for as long as the length of his impressive speeches and rallies—by the sheer force of his personality. Not so with Benedict.

The new pope has a tough road ahead of him if he expects to continue to convince young adults that they should live by absolute truth. Though applying simple answers to today’s complex problems may be appealing for some, blind absolutism oftentimes leaves us unsatisfied, and no audience is tougher than those who are 18-25 years old. It is just at college age when most young people are first exposed to the idea that there is very rarely one truth. Different understandings can only be explored through listening and with an open mind. But, at least for now, Benedict offers only absolutes. He has continued the refrain of his predecessor, emphasizing that “the laws of God and of the Church” are fixed, final, and yet they offer freedom to Catholics today. He explained to the young people at World Youth Day that true freedom comes in accepting these truths, and living fully within their parameters.

This, more than anything else, may support the saying that God is in the details. Today’s Catholic youth need a pope who will help them navigate the nuances of truth, give them wisdom for handling difficult situations and help them live out their faith in action. They need an experienced guide to steer them across the vast acreage that exists between absolute truth, on the one hand, and extreme relativism, on the other. They need someone who can help them understand the spirit of the law, so that they are grounded in true faithfulness when facing the challenges that will inevitably come. We can only hope that Pope Benedict will soon turn his remarkable mind to these details.

Copyright ©2005 Jon Sweeney

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His new book is

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