Whenever and wherever the pope appears in public, young people gravitate to him with genuine affection and enthusiasm. At World Youth Day, papal trips abroad, and weekly audiences at St. Peter’s, young Catholics chant: “John Paul II! We love you!” or “Ben-e-det-to!” – at the awe-inspiring sight of the Successor of St. Peter. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been moved, in turn, by every new encounter with the young, and they address them with paternal love and respect. The two pontiffs have written thousands of pages of learned philosophy and theology between them, yet their speeches to young people are among the greatest and most accessible statements of the essence of Christianity in the modern era.
But only a small number of young Catholics are blessed to see and hear the chief shepherd of the Church in person. The vast majority meets the pope only through the mainstream media and the framework in which the media cast him. This would be no cause for alarm if EWTN or other sympathetic media outlets were the primary sources of information. But most young people hear about him through the likes of CNN or Wikipedia, at best, or Bill Maher at worst.
Benedict XVI . . . “with paternal love and respect.”
Several conversations with Catholic high school students over the last few months have made this painfully clear to me. After Benedict’s trip to the United Kingdom, I asked a few groups of such students where the pope had visited the prior weekend. Only a handful had any idea that he had set foot outside of Rome. But for those who did know, the answer to my follow-up question, “Why did he go there?” was unanimous: He went to apologize for clerical abuse. Blessed John Henry Newman and Benedict’s lovely remarks about him might just as well have never existed.
Not surprising, given the mainstream media’s obsession with the abuse crisis. Far more disconcerting, however, is what young people think they know of the man who is Benedict XVI. In three different settings over the last few months, five students, independent of one another asked me whether the pope was a Nazi. They all asked this innocently, merely repeating what they had picked up elsewhere. But where did they hear this? Not long ago – it’s gone now – if you typed “Benedict XVI” into the Google search bar, “ Nazi ” was one of the first options offered by the auto-complete function. Apparently, Internet searches for the alleged connection pointed the search engines in that direction.
It’s easy to excoriate the media or the Catholic hierarchy for this state of affairs – each incurs some blame. And neither has been very helpful in addressing the crisis of faith among the young. They have received the supernatural gift of faith in baptism, but the natural conditions necessary for faith to develop do not exist in our culture, except in rare circumstances. Grace has great difficulty perfecting nature when nature is deliberately being held incommunicado.
No written exam on the papacy is required for entrance into eternal life. But the way Catholics see Christ’s Vicar correlates with how they see Christ himself. Young Catholics today are like the people tied up in Plato’s cave: their only knowledge of the pope and the saving message he bears comes not from the Church, but from distorted shadows on the electronic wall, shadows deliberately contrived along non- and even anti-Catholic lines.
Greeting their Papa.
Handing on the faith to the young in the cave is extraordinarily difficult, but the few young Catholics who have emerged intact are determined to break the chains binding their duped contemporaries. They are the ones chanting the pope’s name at his public appearances – the young priests, religious, seminarians, youth ministers, catechetical instructors, and lay faithful – and they are preaching, teaching, and living the Gospel. They also increasingly utilize technology to penetrate the media’s cultural shadowlands. Our Lord promised that the truth would set us free. The light of truth is now shining into the cave, even if the darkness swallows much of its brilliance.
The greatest living and effective weapon in the arsenal of truth is the pope himself. His person electrifies sympathetic observers; his message tugs at their hearts. And he is readily accessible in schools and religious education programs via creative uses of technology. I recently read Benedict’s address to students in the United Kingdom with three high school boys. Two were impressed at its profundity. The third was visibly stirred. If some aspect of the media can be harnessed to bring the pope and his message to Catholics – rather than the media distorting his image and ignoring his message – we may be surprised at how many souls are waiting to be freed from life in the cave.