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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
26 Jul 2002
Report from World Youth Day
   by John Vennari - Editor, Catholic Family News

Upon this rock 'n roll I will build my Church?

Friday: July 26, 2002

I traveled to Toronto to cover World Youth Day for Catholic Family News and arrived late Wednesday afternoon. I have the good fortune to stay in the area with a friend. That night, we went to the Scarborough Mission for what we were told was an evening of Muslim-Catholic youth dialogue. We were disappointed to learn that though the Mission sponsored the meeting, it was held at the main venue, which made it impossible for us to get there at a reasonable time. For the moment, I have no report from this inter-faith gathering.

The next morning, we went to a catechesis session. These sessions are being held in various parish churches throughout Toronto. They are given by bishops from various countries. We arrived at one church just in time to hear a French-speaking bishop invite the youth to go ahead and get acquainted. In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, those in the jovial crowd turned to each other for a loud, chattering mini-friendship-fest. This died down after a few minutes, and then the bishop resumed his talk.

We left this church, came upon another French speaking bishop in another parish, and finally found an English speaking bishop at St. Rose Church. Bishop Reese (sp?) obviously a Caribbean bishop, was better than most. His talk will be discussed in Catholic Family News.

The young people in the church were dressed as if they were going to a picnic, hike through the woods, or attend a sporting event: shorts, t-shirts, sneakers, many young women in short-shorts, some scanty tops, and lots of matching t-shirts for various youth groups. The young man in front of me had printed on the back of his shirt the words "Tuned for Trash".

After the bishop's session, the youngsters were told to stand up and stretch before the Mass began. Those in the crowd stood in the church chatting with each other in full voice, some were scratching each others' backs. They milled in and out of pews, and wandered around the Church aisles. I did not see one of them genuflect, even though the Sanctuary lamp and tabernacle were clearly in view. One young man stood drumming a rapid funky rhythm with his hands on the side of the pew. Others were swigging water from plastic bottles. These poor young people, whom Pope John Paul calls "the hope of the future", are completely devoid of reverence before the Blessed Sacrament. They don't seem to have a clue. But what can we expect? They are the children of the children of Vatican II.

The hope of the future were then told to quiet down just before the Mass began. The Mass was full of modern rock 'n roll, guitar-mass-styled songs (one could not call them hymns). This liturgy did not contain a raucous party atmosphere, as do Charismatic liturgies. It was simply the Novus Ordo, bland and loud. We left before the service ended.

That afternoon I traveled alone to the Exhibition Center, which is World Youth Day Central in Toronto. It is a massive outdoor plaza, with an adjacent indoor arena called Exhibition Place. Outside on the main stage, a Catholic rock musician, with his electric guitar strapped on, performed "Catholic pop" music, similar to what I heard when covering Charismatic events. The most hokey performance of his repertoire was when he sang "I'm a Believer" by The Monkees. The Monkees!

For those who may not know, "I'm a Believer" is a pop love song from the '70s that containing the lyrics, "Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer". The WYD singer changed "her" to "Him", in reference to Our Lord. Deep, man. Deep! Various youngsters in the crowd dance and boogied to the upbeat numbers. And what a crowd. The last count I saw proclaimed 200,000 registrants, which is about 150,000 less than what the organizers need to break even. A more accurate count will be gauged after the close of the event.

The press has called World Youth Day a Catholic Woodstock, and though there is a ring of truth to this description, I don't think it fully communicates what's here. Of course, it is a Woodstock type of event, because the dominant atmosphere at World Youth Day is not Catholicism. It is the rock 'n roll culture. I'll say that again. The dominant atmosphere at World Youth Day is not Catholicism. It is the rock 'n roll culture. There is rock 'n roll music everywhere. "Catholic Rock" blares relentlessly. Life is a holy groove to be enjoyed. The Toronto newspapers continually refer to WYD as a festival. It is the party atmosphere that prevails.

In fact, the Globe and Mail, Canada's national daily, reported Thursday of two World Youth Day teens, the hope of the future, stripping down to their bikinis to frolic in a fountain behind the Pope's stage. One young man seized the opportunity, turned on the charm, introduced himself to the scantily clad ladies, and secured their phone numbers which he immediately penciled into his little black book.

Some of those interviewed for the Globe and Mail stated openly (and shamelessly) that their real purpose for coming to World Youth Day was to mingle and carouse with the opposite sex. Some found it especially attractive that they could flirt with those from other countries. The Globe and Mail noted correctly that this type of behavior is bound to take place when tens of thousands of young people are herded together, far away from home, unsupervised. The same newspaper quoted a 19-year-old from Paris, who, speaking in broken English said, "Do I use a condom? Of course. The Pope say don't choose that. But we humans are bad, you know, so I use condom, sure!"

Granted, most here did not come to be naughty. The Globe and Mail reported the words of a 17-year-old Philadelphia girl who said, "Those who are here for sex shouldn't be here". The same report quoted a young man who believes he has found the proper "moral" balance. He stated, "There's a time and place for everything. Inside the Mass we're not hitting on girls".

Yet, as mentioned, Woodstock does not adequately communicate the spirit of World Youth Day. I would have to call it a Catholic Rock 'n roll Olympics. Not because there are any competition sports taking place, but because what one finds as the crowd. There are huge contingencies of young people walking together often wearing matching shirts, carrying the flags from their countries: Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Lebanon. They cheer at each other (especially the Americans) when they recognize another party from their country walking by. Yayeee! Wooooooooh!, and all the other cheers and jeers one finds at rock concerts and sporting events.

I was inside the huge Exhibition Hall when the Pope arrived. He was scheduled to show up at 5:00 but he came early, so I missed his grand entrance. In my opinion, the crowd greets him as if he is a superstar, rock star, or pop personality, rather than the visible representative of Christ on earth. There is no reverence. Sure, there are young girls in the crowd crying for John Paul, but in the '60s, there were even more crowds of young girls crying for John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The newspapers have reported the Pope's words, so I will not recount them here. Rather, I want to describe what it is really like at WYD when the Pope is on stage greeting the youth, the hope of the future, as he calls them.

The Pope addresses the crowd in French, Spanish, Italian and English, so most of the time, those in the crowd do not know what he's saying. When he firsts greets the crowd in a new tongue, for example, Italian, the Italians cheer, jump up and down and wave their flags. It gives the impression that the various nationalities came to World Youth Day primarily to celebrate themselves.

A large crowd in front of the stage listens and cheers to the Pope's words. Much further back beyond the main stage, there is a large screen and speakers in front of which the youth gather to listen and applaud.

Whenever I saw World Youth Day coverage on television, I was always under the impression that the entire crowd was cheering for the Pope. This is not the case. At the same time the Pope was speaking, a massive amount of people, young and old, were doing their own thing, not paying the slightest attention.

I saw crowds of people milling around, visiting the vendors, while the Pope was speaking. I saw young people sitting on the ground, chatting away, while the Pope was speaking. I saw six long lines of people buying pizza at pizza truck, while the Pope was speaking. A plump Franciscan was slurping an ice cream cone, while the Pope was speaking. And lots of young people were stretched out on the ground for a nap: some young girls using their boyfriends' tummies as pillows, while the Pope was speaking.

After the Pope's greeting, which will be more detailed in the full report on World Youth Day in the next Catholic Family News, the crowd dispersed, ate supper, and then spread out to the various attractions scheduled for the evening. I felt sad for these children of the children of Vatican II. This "fusion Catholicism" is practically all the post-Conciliar Church offers them.

I wandered in and out of these evening attractions that were composed of rock 'n roll bands, pop dancing, and an outdoor rock 'n roll dance rendition of the Gospel that was simply pathetic. I return today, Friday, to see what else is in store. I keep looking for something -- anything -- that Popes Pius IX, Pius X, Pius XI, or Pius XII would recognize as Catholic. So far, I haven't found much. Stay tuned.

One last thought comes to me.

World Youth Day is designed for the youth ages 16 to 35. This means that Our Lord Himself, who started His public ministry at age 30, would have qualified for World Youth Day. I can't imagine Our Lord as one of the defrauded, World Youth Day participants grooving to an aging rocker singing songs by The Monkees that have been awkwardly converted to a "holy" purpose.

I haven't seen any WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) t-shirts since I arrived in Toronto. But I can guess one thing Jesus would not do. He would not degrade Himself by participating in the rock 'n roll antics and pop gimmicks that constitute World Youth Day.

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