4th Oct 2013

WYD Rio Was Great! Now What?: Making a Pivotal Evangelical Event Count

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Do not be afraid.

It has been said that there are similarities between Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope John Paul II, even as all the media world seems to see something else. Thanks be to God for those who are listening, and for the “awesomeness” some are attributing to Pope Francis. He is a breath of fresh air who provides a tremendous opportunity for us to begin to heal the wounds of an ailing culture. But in a world where we tend to look away and appear complacent and aloof from what truly ails us, we must avoid two extremes: We neither can make an idol out of this dynamic first American pope, nor can we be satisfied watching from the sidelines and not journeying with him.

We journeyed with him to Brazil this summer for World Youth Day, where some three million people on Copacabana Beach near Rio de Janeiro prayed and listened to his challenge. That great love of God — evidenced most profoundly by his Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection for the sake of our Redemption — is his greatest gift, and with that great power, we Christians have great responsibilities. “The Cross of Christ,” Pope Francis preached during a Stations of the Cross service, “invites us … to allow ourselves to be smitten by his love. His transforming love teaches us always to look upon others with mercy and tenderness, especially those who suffer, who are in need of help, who need a word or a concrete action; the cross invites us to step outside ourselves to meet them and to extend a hand to them.”

We see this interplay in the Way of the Cross, as we pray it: On the road to Calvary, there was Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Mary, and the women. “Which of them do you want to be?,” Pope Francis asked:

Do you want to be like Pilate, who did not have the courage to go against the tide to save Jesus’ life, and instead washed his hands? Tell me: are you one of those who wash their hands, who feign ignorance and look the other way? Or are you like Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus to carry that heavy wood, or like Mary and the other women, who were not afraid to accompany Jesus all the way to the end, with love and tenderness? And you, who do you want to be? Like Pilate? Like Simon? Like Mary? Jesus is looking at you now and is asking you: do you want to help me carry the Cross? Brothers and sisters, with all the strength of your youth, how will you respond to him?

And there we are. This is the choice. The Way is to walk with Him, of course. It ain’t easy. It’s harder some days than others. It may look impossible and that Cross may look unbearable.

Do not be afraid.

That’s Matthew. That’s JPII to all of Eastern Europe and the World. That’s Benedict in his installation homily. And that’s Aparecida.

The Rio trip took the first pope from the Americas close to home. In the cathedral of Aparecida, Brazil’s national shrine, he talked about how we can live lives of joyful hope amidst the uncertainties of the world. Be open to God’s surprises. The world will surprise us and so will God. We will not know how he works. The whole “mysterious ways” bit. God asks us, Pope Francis said, “to let ourselves be surprised by his love, to accept his surprises. Let us trust God! Cut off from him, the wine of joy, the wine of hope, runs out. If we draw near to him, if we stay with him, what seems to be cold water, difficulty, sin, is changed into the new wine of friendship with him.” He rooted the message in the shrine itself and its Marian roots: As the story goes, in 1717, three fishermen spent a day with no catch, prayed to Mary for success, and soon netted a statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception followed by a huge haul of fish.

The challenge is the fiat, pure and simple, Mary’s “yes” – her historic game changer – which is the model for how we might respond to what God asks of us.

That same basilica was a place of pilgrimage and even administrative work for the bishops of the Caribbean and Latin America back when Pope Francis was known as Jorge Bergoglio. In 2007, they went there to retreat a bit to work on a document on the New Evangelization there. That document helps answer the question of how we might carry out the spirit of the pope’s message after Rio, as the afterglow and spiritual high of World Youth Day fades. It better explains Francis and the New Evangelization program of renewal and reform that we’re seeing play out in his media interviews, with his every embrace and morning homily, and which we’re about to see as he works to reform the Vatican — work he’s been preparing the way for since his election.

The Aparecida document repeats that “Do not be afraid,” a command of the Lord. “As with the women on the morning of the Resurrection,” the final report of the Fifth General Assembly of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean repeats to us:

The Lord tells us: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). As with the women on the morning of the Resurrection, he repeats to us: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Lk 24:5). We are encouraged by signs of the victory of the risen Christ, while we plead for the grace of conversion and keep alive the hope that does not deceive. What defines us is not the harsh dramatic living conditions, nor the challenges of society, nor the tasks that we must undertake, but above all the love received from the Father through Jesus Christ by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. This fundamental priority is what has guided all our endeavors, and we offer them to God, to our church, to our people, to each and every Latin American, while we lift our confident entreaty to the Holy Spirit so we may rediscover the beauty and joy of being Christians. Here lies the fundamental challenge that we face: to show the church’s capacity to promote and form disciples and missionaries who respond to the calling received and to communicate everywhere, in an outpouring of gratitude and joy, the gift of the encounter with Jesus Christ. We have no other treasure but that. We have no other happiness, no other priority, but to be instruments of the Spirit of God, as Church, so that Jesus Christ may be known, followed, loved, adored, announced, and communicated to all, despite difficulties and resistances. This is the best service — his service! — that the church has to offer people and nations.

The document highlights the continuity of the Gospel message by quoting Benedict echoing JPII, echoing the Gospel:

Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ! ... If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. . . . Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.

We need to make these words our own!

Pope Francis’ most passionate interaction in Rio, may have been with World Youth Day volunteers, as he began to head to the airport to return to Rome. He told the young people there:

God calls you to make definitive choices, and he has a plan for each of you: to discover that plan and to respond to your vocation is to move toward personal fulfilment. God calls each of us to be holy, to live his life, but he has a particular path for each one of us. Some are called to holiness through family life in the sacrament of Marriage. Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion. Is it out of fashion? In a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of ‘enjoying’ the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘for ever,’ because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage “to swim against the tide”. And also have the courage to be happy.

Be not afraid, in other words!

Don’t be distracted by interpretations of what the pope says. Don’t be tempted to politicize or caricature him. Don’t be distracted from the radical challenges of the Gospel. Don’t be content to pick and choose from what the pope speaks, what the Church teaches. We’re called to be the people of that Aparecida document, the joyful youth who made sacrifices to be in Rio with the pope because they knew the renewal in the journey toward the eternal life that is promised us is worth it.

When Pope Benedict was at that same shrine of Aparecida, opening the assembly of bishops, he said: “[T]he disciple knows that without Christ, there is no light, no hope, no love, no future.”

Rio calls us to live like we believe that. To be disciples, already.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)