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An old church looking young and hip The past week has reinforced Catholicism as part of Canada's fabric, MICHAEL VALPY writes

The past week has reinforced Catholicism as part of Canada's fabric, MICHAEL VALPY writes

For seven days, Roman Catholic ritual drenched the secular news media.

The Prime Minister was televised on his knees kissing the Pope's hand. Toronto's ceremonial main street became a stage for Catholic liturgical devotion.

Canadians everywhere were reminded that Catholicism is part of the nation's fabric. The sun broke through the black clouds of sex scandal and the shameful memories of aboriginal residential schools and shone on a happy celebration.

Catholicism looked young. It looked vibrant.

It looked -- so long as one didn't look closely -- progressive and contemporary.

It looked the perfect model of Pope John Paul's "restoration strategy" for his church.

All those are benchmarks for measuring the success of World Youth Day, the gathering of young Catholics from around the globe that ended yesterday in Toronto when the Pope's jetliner took off for Guatemala and Mexico.

The Toronto event attracted the fewest participants since World Youth Day began in 1985: just 200,000, compared to, say, 600,000 who showed up at Denver in 1993.

But 200,000 people are a big enough TV backdrop for a pope which, in a world of images, is all that matters.
The question -- given the purpose for which World Youth Day was created -- is what did it achieve.?

It was created to build a future for the church, to bring young Catholics together from around the planet to learn about and celebrate their faith and get zapped by the electricity of being with a charismatic pope.

You don't catch fish without baiting the hook -- even if the fish are already committed Catholics.

The bait, for young people, is culture: create a religious environment that meshes with their cultural environment, and they'll come. It's something no one knows better than John Paul, who believes that culture -- more than political ideology or economics -- is the driving force behind humanity's path through history.

Rev. Dan Donovan, a Catholic priest, teaches in the Christianity-and-culture program at the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College.

He said yesterday that Toronto's World Youth Day succeeded brilliantly in meshing Catholic culture with secular culture, in using media technology to project Catholic ritual into mainstream life.

He said: "The thing with ritual is that everyone plugs into it at a different level" -- thus, for some, it would be words, for others, music, for others, drama or something as simple as watching Youth Day delegates parade their national flags before the Pope.

But what's axiomatic is that ritual has a powerful emotional appeal, especially for young people.

He said the staging of the Catholic devotional Stations of the Cross on Toronto's University Avenue was masterful -- a high-tech medieval drama of Jesus's final moments of life superimposed on a 21st-century street of government, finance, medical research and courtrooms.

"The staging, the design and the camera work were superb."

At Sunday's papal mass, he said, there was not a word in the ritual that was new, but the techniques used in presenting it -- the dances, the music, the colours and visual designs, all broadcast by modern media -- were remarkable.

Father Donovan said it is almost impossible to measure the impact of World Youth Day, but his sense from talking to many young people is that they had a powerful emotional experience.

"It's difficult to be a believer in this age. The great postmodern view is cynicism, skepticism. But there were a lot of kids touched very deeply last week."

So much for the right side of the brain -- the images. When you look at the left-brain stuff, the intellectual substance of World Youth Day, you get another view of the Roman Catholic Church, the older, traditional church that's still around.

For three mornings during the week, World Youth Day participants were instructed by bishops on their faith and its moral teachings.

Michael Higgins, a scholar on contemporary Catholicism and president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, described it as a magisterial, hierarchical model with very strong conservative strains.

Young people were not encouraged to question, he said. They were not encouraged to think for themselves. They certainly were not encouraged to be critical.

There was no place at World Youth Day for a Catholic umbrella group called Challenge the Church, which disagrees with the church's -- and the Pope's -- teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. "I don't like the idea of there being no place for them," Prof. Higgins said.

"The danger is that if this is the only face of the church that World Youth Day presents, the magisterial model, it's a harbinger of a return to an older church. The Catholic Church is polarizing [on these issues] to an alarming degree in the United States and it is spilling over into Canada."

He added that if World Youth Day is seen as a summit for young people -- the apex of experiencing and understanding their faith -- then it will be self-defeating and ephemeral.

Which, interestingly enough, is precisely the issue concerning Germany's bishops who are planning the next World Youth Day to be held in 2005 in Cologne.

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