Those two million young Catholics are just so unfashionable. Long may it remain so

I begin with an email I received this morning from a priest who has just returned from the World Youth Day:

Just back from WYD – amazing joy and colour swamped Madrid. Yet the Pope’s Saturday night attack on Spanish hedonism was stopped by a freak and frightening gale, sand storm, thunder and dramatic lightning.

We were in the sandy, dirty, barbed wire overflow area, itself overfull, which meant we couldn’t even properly see the screens for this area but did have quite a good view of the site and the horizon. During the storm we watched mounted police appearing like the four horsemen of the apocalypse as lights and screens went out and entrance gates and tented chapels were ripped up – injuring people, sending lots home and, it seems, separating quite a few children from their parents. Lighting and the screens went out. Clearly not of God, I’d say.

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But all the same, the abiding reflection left in the mind by that frightening gale, perhaps not of all those who were there (especially if they couldn’t see anything much) but certainly of many – and even of some at least of those who could not be there, of those who were sitting comfortably at home at the time – will surely be that though itself perhaps not of God, the occasion this great tempest presented for God’s grace to manifest itself (obstacles are so often occasions of grace) was very striking. As an act of witness, the spectacle in the mind’s eye of over a million (some said as many as two million) young people kneeling in the mud, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, could hardly be more impressive.

The Holy Father himself, despite being urged during the storm to leave by those whose job it is to look after him, replied that his place was with all those who had come. He took shelter from the wind and rain beneath a large white umbrella, held over him by Mgr Guido Marini, his master of ceremonies. He remained, according to one eyewitness, “remarkably serene amid the howling gales, although his hair was repeatedly buffeted by the wind”. His prepared text had to be abandoned. The pope’s serenity and steadfastness wasn’t something, of course, that would surprise anyone who witnessed his amazing stamina during the papal visit to England and Scotland. But the young people who were there is another matter. According to one account:

… the storm didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of young pilgrims, as many simply chose to dance and sing in the downpour.

And …. as the repeated chant of “We are the Pope’s Children” went up to the heavens, the rain ceased.

“The storm? Wow. It was a blast,” said a very wet 17-year-old Matt Horn, originally from Florida, to CNA. He added: “I guess it’s a sign from God to wash away our sins and now that it’s cleared we’re clear of our sins for now – and hopefully that means that we’ll now listen to the Pope and be his children as the chant says.”

“Thank you for your joy and resistance. Your strength is bigger than the rain,” said Pope Benedict as the rain let up. “The Lord sends you lots of blessings with the rain.”

In a shortened speech, the Pope went on to urge the young people to use tonight’s prayer vigil to grow closer to Jesus Christ as they discern their paths.

“Dear young people, in these moments of silence before the Blessed Sacrament, let us raise our minds and hearts to Jesus Christ, the Lord of our lives and of the future,” said the Pope to English speaking pilgrims.

“May he pour out his Spirit upon us and upon the whole Church, that we may be a beacon of freedom, reconciliation and peace for the whole world.”

A sense of peace descended on the crowd as the Mass choir sang Mozart’s Eucharistic hymn “Ave Verum Corpus,” before Pope Benedict led all present in the service of Benediction.

Movingly, most of the million-strong congregation chose to kneel in the mud before the Blessed Sacrament.

But though for Catholics this was an occasion of grace, it was not, one might have supposed, the act of witness to the secular world it might have been. It was not mentioned at all in the Today programme’s report, as Milo Yiannopoulos pointed out in his rightly indignant blog this week (“The BBC’s coverage of World Youth Day has been a disgrace”), even though the mere 5,000-6,000 (0.3 per cent of the two million pilgrims) militant anti-Catholics who attempted to disrupt events in Madrid itself were mentioned, as though their demonstration and not the WYD to which they took such exception was for the Today programme the only newsworthy episode. As Mr Yiannopoulos pointed out, even Andrew Brown (hardly a fervent pro-Catholic) objected in his Guardian blog that the BBC

… did not once mention World Youth Day, the extraordinary global Catholic gathering that the pope is also visiting. That has brought something like 1.5 million young people from around the world to the Spanish capital to greet him. Whether or not you approve of this, it is important and – above all – newsworthy simply because it is unexpected and goes against the grain of what the media tell us. So why is it not reported?

His answer was simply that “The kind of young people who go on organised pilgrimages … are quintessentially unfashionable.”

Well, so they are; and in such a world, long may they remain so. But the point about young people is that they don’t necessarily like being fashionable: they tend to rebel against fashions, especially the fashions decreed by their elders in a society such as the one their elders have created.

That is the whole point of World Youth Day. What could be more unfashionable, more counter-cultural, than an old, frail man in a white cassock? It has become fashionable to say that this Pope is not “charismatic”. But what does “charismatic” mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary it means “exercising a compelling charm that inspires devotion in others …. (of a power or talent) divinely conferred”. Well, quite. When the rain stopped and finally he could be heard, the Pope’s first words were to thank his hearers for their “joy and resistance”. Could any two words more powerfully sum up qualities needful for the Christian journey? That frightening storm may not have been of God; but its fruits surely were.

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