Like all Catholics and indeed most Christians all over the world, the 1.5 million young people who gathered with the Pope for World Youth Day in Madrid listened to the Gospel passage from Matthew 16:13-20.
The story begins with Jesus asking the disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ The disciples tell Jesus that others are calling him John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. If we were to ask people in 2011 in Australia, Spain, or perhaps any other country in the Western world, the actual answers would be different but the sentiment would be basically the same: popular opinion now as then considers Jesus to be a wise figure, a guru, a noble teacher – and that’s all.
In fact, as I listen to people today the most common position is probably summed up by the title of Philip Pullman’s book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: Jesus was a good guy, noble, nice and now very dead. As far as Pullman and indeed many of our contemporaries are concerned, the divinity of Jesus is a fantasy dreamt up by the Church at a much later date and a terrible distortion of what the ‘real’ Jesus was on about.
In the Gospel though Jesus is not content with popular opinion. He wants an answer from the people who have walked with him, from those he has chosen and called to follow him. And so he asks the disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’. We’re told that Peter then spoke up. I think that implies a deathly silence after Jesus asked the question. No one was game to speak for a moment or two. And then Peter declared, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
It would be a mistake to think that Peter’s profession of faith here means that he understood precisely what Son of God meant in the technical language that would be used in the 4th century to define Jesus’ divinity. It’s anachronistic to think that Peter had access to language that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea employed to unequivocally affirm the divinity of Christ in AD 325 in the statement popularly known as the Nicene Creed. But that’s precisely the point: the bishops at Nicaea weren’t saying something new about Jesus when they declared that Jesus is ‘the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages’. They were expressing the consistent faith of Christians from Peter down to their own time.
What the bishops were trying to do in AD 325 was to clearly articulate the Church’s belief in Jesus’ divinity because a man named Arius had denied it, and so the Church needed to re-state what Christians had always believed. As a consequence they came up with the statement above and the following to describe what Christians believe about Jesus:
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
From Peter to Nicaea to our own time: to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It means that in the man Jesus of Nazareth God is completely and uniquely present. Our faith hangs on this, because our faith is based not simply on Jesus’ teaching, but on who he is. If Jesus is only a human being, then what he says might be interesting, it might be profound, but his teaching can be no more important than the legacy of any other teacher, leader or prophet. But if Jesus really is divine, then his teaching is universally valid and relevant for every human being. More than that, if Jesus really is divine then it is through him that we are able to share in the very life of God.
Many of Peter’s contemporaries found this to be a scandalous claim. People today find it scandalous too. It is the ‘scandal’ at the heart of the Christian faith. But as the encounter between Peter and Jesus tells us, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God is ultimately the result of God’s revelation, of God’s self-giving communication that resounds in the hearts of those who are open to it.
What has this got to do with a gathering of 1.5 million young people in Madrid this weekend? Simply this: that in Benedict XVI the successor of Peter is still speaking up, still declaring, in spite of many voices that ridicule and deride him for doing so, that Jesus is divine. This is the deepest purpose of the papacy: to profess, in continuity with Peter’s declaration, that Jesus is the Son of God… and to invite others to do the same.
World Youth Day week is about to start in Madrid, and I’m confident that all those who are going WYD have already arrived in Spain. Which makes it possible for me to share the reflection for pilgrims that I was asked to write for the WYD Journal that all Australian pilgrims received. For those of you who aren’t attending WYD, here is a little reflection on what I think awaits our Aussie friends. This week, why don’t we make a little pilgrimage of our own to a church we don’t normally visit, and pray for the pilgrims.
I’d like to think that right now you are thousands of metres up in the air, and that far below you the lights of Dili, Delhi or Dubai are winking up at you. Everyone else on the plane is asleep, and you have picked up your World Youth Day Journal and have begun to thumb through it (ok, so I know that you may actually be reading this in your bedroom before you leave, or maybe even after you have arrived home from Spain. If that’s so, humour me a little and pretend that you are on your way to Europe, and the whole adventure still lies ahead of you). I hope you have a lot of fun! In fact, I’m sure you will have an amazing experience. And you never know, it might just change your life.
No doubt that even before you left Australia, your group leader had already fed you the line: ‘you’re a pilgrim not a tourist’. It’s one of the things group leaders say to prepare you for the worst that your journey will bring: long queues, big crowds, cold showers, school floors. It’s more than just a line though. You really are a pilgrim. You have joined a countless queue of people throughout history who have made a journey to a sacred place. So welcome to the club. Here’s the thing though: you are currently travelling thousands of kilometres in order to visit breathtakingly beautiful and important places, but the most sacred journey a pilgrim undertakes is actually a journey of the heart.
In the past, people went on pilgrimage for lots of different reasons. Some definitely took it all very seriously, and prayed the whole way, and no doubt got really excited when they arrived in Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, or whatever shrine or religious hotspot they were aiming for. We know from the history books that lots of other people went on pilgrimage because it was really the only form of tourism that they had available. They wanted to see the world, and pilgrimage was a respectable way of leaving everything at home behind in order to check out somewhere new. Not much has changed. There are some of you who know exactly why you are going to World Youth Day. You are hanging out to go to Mass with a couple of million other young people and the pope. That’s great. But there are others who somehow also got the chance to come and it seemed like a great opportunity. You might not be all that sure about all the religious stuff that’s going on. My tip, whether you are a WYD groupie or a complete WYD newbie is this: pay attention to your heart. As you experience all that this 21st century pilgrimage has to offer, listen to what the deepest part of you is telling you.
That’s because you aren’t on this plane by accident. God got you here and whether you know it or not, God has some very definite purpose in mind for you over the days and weeks ahead. So, as you have a fantastic time experiencing all that Spain (and whatever other countries you visit along the way) has to offer, keep listening to your heart, and keep paying attention.
In particular, listen to what your heart is telling you when you hear the stories of faith from the other young people in your group, and when you meet other pilgrims from other parts of the world. Listen also to the witness of the stones, stained glass and art of the cathedrals and churches that you visit. They are ‘words’ set in stone and sand and paint that can speak to you of previous generations’ faith and love. When you take a moment on the bus to write in your journal, when you stop for a moment’s silence in a church, as you sit in a plaza (that’s Spanish for ‘square’) and have a coffee, when you are speechless at the sight of the natural wonder and beauty before you, and even when you find yourself in conflict or struggling with someone or something on the journey, stop again and listen to your heart.
And when you’re at the WYD vigil and everyone has lit their candles, and all you can see in every direction are flickers of flame held aloft by young hands from all over the world, and as you realise then and there that you belong to a universal family called the Catholic Church, listen to your heart then too. You aren’t alone. There are so many young people like you who are listening to their heart at that moment too.
I’m going to spoil the surprise and tell you what’s going on: In all those moments it’s someone knocking on the door of your heart that you can hear. That’s because your destination at end of your pilgrimage is not a place, it’s a person. The goal of this journey is a meeting, an encounter with Jesus Christ. He is alive, risen from the dead, and that means he is the answer to the deepest questions, the deepest desires and longings of your heart. He wants to be the source and foundation of your lives as you are planted and built up in him. He wants you to be firm in your faith in him, because he is the sure hope, the solid ground on which you can base your lives.
Vaya con Dios, peregrino (that’s Spanish for ‘go with God, pilgrim’). Vaya con Dios.
Today marks the third anniversary of World Youth Day 08 in Sydney. For me, as for most I suppose, it seems like those three years have flown by. I get asked fairly regularly about what I think WYD08 achieved, especially for the Church in Australia, and I think there are plenty of possible answers to that question. I’d like to highlight just one central point for us to give thanks to God for on this anniversary. It might also help to explain why WYD continues to matter to young Australian Catholics as many young pilgrims make their final preparations to attend the next World Youth Day in Madrid.
You have probably noticed that it’s not all that easy to be a young Catholic in Australia at the moment. The truth is, it never really has been. The first young Catholics in this country were Irish convicts, victims of repressive measures in their homeland. And for the first half of the twentieth century to be Catholic was to be a member of a vilified minority. In the early part of the twenty-first century young Catholics do not suffer outright persecution, but are all too often easily ridiculed, dismissed or mocked for their religious beliefs.
It is important to ‘read’ WYD08 against this cultural backdrop. World Youth Day was far from being a dramatic ‘in your face’ sort of challenge to the mockers and scorners, a sort of victory by sheer overwhelming mass of numbers. This wasn’t a moment of revived triumphalism where we stood down our detractors and got a bit of our own back. WYD08 was a moment where we recognised and celebrated, in large, loud and highly symbolic terms, that we are part of the Church universal. Again, this meant more than simply meeting pilgrims from other countries or simply being part of the largest Catholic crowd this country has ever seen. It wasn’t about safety in numbers, but was rather a reminder that here in Australia, we are not alone, but are part of something bigger.
More than that, World Youth Day helped to connect us to the universal Church not simply in space but also in time. We are a young Church here in Australia, and unable to trace our Christian roots directly back through several hundred much less a thousand years. But three years ago today we were made vividly aware through the identifying characteristics of our faith – such as the proclamation of the Word of God, the Eucharist, the presence of the successor of Peter, and the presence of peoples from lands that have an ancient Christian heritage – that our faith is not something that we hold alone, but something we hold with others across the world and in union with others who have gone before us.
For that week it was transparently clear that being a Catholic does not always mean feeling foolish or dismissed or rejected. Here was a moment where we belonged, where we were reminded that we share in a rich and substantial tradition, where people helped us to understand the rich intellectual vigour of our faith and where we deepened in our love for the Lord Jesus and his Church. It is not too trite to say that WYD08 encouraged us – it literally gave us new heart in our faith as Catholics as we were reminded that we are part of the Church of Jesus Christ. May the memory of that week in July 2008 give us renewed strength to give others a reason for the hope that we have.
As Madrid draws near I pray that the pilgrims attending this next World Youth Day will similarly find that their faith is richly confirmed. And I pray that those of us who were present at Sydney might also be reminded of Pope Benedict’s challenge to us:
Do not be afraid to say “yes” to Jesus, to find your joy in doing his will, giving yourself completely to the pursuit of holiness, and using all your talents in the service of others!
PS I know the photo is of Barangaroo and not Randwick. It’s just too good a photo not too share!
This is the audio for a short talk I gave to WYD pilgrimage leaders on Pope Benedict’s message for WYD. One of the things that really struck me about the letter was the way in which Benedict unpacks the kerygma or basic proclamation of the Gospel. Thanks XT3 for the audio. Stay tuned for more WYD posts as Madrid draws near.