By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
While vastly different in style and approach, Pope Benedict XVI appears to be attracting the same huge numbers of youth to World Youth Day as his predecessor, John Paul II.
More than 500,000 people are expected to make the long trip to Australia this week, most of them youth who affectionately refer to the Pope as “Benny” or “Big Benny.”
“In Rome it is said that the young people came to see John Paul II but that they come to listen to Benedict,” said Dr. Tracey Rowland, Dean of Melbourne’s the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, to MercatorNet.
“The two pontiffs are definitely different personalities. John Paul II wanted to be an actor before he became a priest, but Benedict only ever wanted to be a priest. One was very much at home on the stage, the other is more at home in a university common room but both in their own way have been great communicators.”
Pope Benedict’s many years of teaching experience tend to make his public appearances to youth more like that of a professor with a bunch of favorite students, Rowland said.
“ . . . I think that he treats a lot of his public appearances like a tutorial. He tries to meet the faithful at a particular level of understanding and then draws them into a deeper understanding of the topic. Often he does this by taking his audience on a history tour through some intellectual debate. He explains the various positions and ties positions to the thinkers who promoted them, and then explains what the Church has taught and why. He is like a professor with a bunch of favorite students.”
The Pope is also a straight shooter, something youth respect him for, Rowland said.
“His basic position is that no one gets anywhere by fudging the truth. It is best to say precisely what the Church teaches without any equivocation. People respect him for this, and they know that if he says something he really means it. They know that they are not getting spin or being schmoozed.”
Especially appealing to youth is the Pope’s positive presentation of Christianity.
“When he was a young priest he was astonished to run across so many people who thought of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations which had to be followed in order to avoid eternal damnation. The word he uses for this is ‘moralism’,” Rowland said.
“He often reminds people that Christianity is not primarily an ethical system, it is participation in the life of the Trinity, and in particular, an encounter with the Person of Christ. It is meant to be enriching and joyful. He doesn’t deny the possibility that some people might end up in hell, but he thinks it is rather neurotic to think of Christianity as an insurance policy against eternal damnation.”
Instead, he tries to focus on the positives, on what authentic Christian spirituality can be.
“He often appeals to beautiful works of art and music as epiphanies of God’s glory and illustrations of what can be created by those who have faith. He wants people to fall in love with the beauty and truth and goodness of Christian Revelation, rather than living in fear of it.”
Can Pope Benedict XVI kickstart a new springtime for the Christian message at this year’s World Youth Day?
Absolutely, says Dr. Rowland.
“Youth respond well to the fact that he is a genuine person and they can tell he is bright. . . . I think that Catholic youth are rather proud of him and that he will inject a sense of joy and confidence in the Christian message.”
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