Benedict XVI at World Youth Day

World Youth Day in Cologne looked like a stunning event–a richly international gathering of Catholic youth from around the globe. While they displayed some of the exuberant features of North American youth culture (I saw “the wave” making its rounds at one point), one must also be struck at how radically different this Catholic youth movement is from dominant strains of evangelical youth culture, which seems captive to an entertainment model and mimicks a kind of MTV-ized version of the faith. The 11th commandment for evangelical youth pastors seems to be, “Thou shalt not be un-cool” (playing right into the hands of the “Merchants of Cool“).

But World Youth Day is eminently successful precisely because in many ways, they reject cool. Here’s an elderly man (not even as charismatic as his predecessor), dressed in anything but hip clothes (no GAP or baggy jeans in his vestments), who refuses to talk down to them. I was able to watch some of the beautiful Marienfeld Vigil on the Saturday night. Benedict XVI’s address at this vigil was inspiring: inviting them to tread the way of the Magi, he noted that the wise men were seeking “true justice that can only come from God.” He noted that the king they found was quite different from their expectations, forcing them to rethink their entire paradigm of “power.” The baby king “contrasts the the noisy and ostentatious power of this world with the defenceless power of love, which succumbs to death on the Cross.” He went on to admonish these young people that “only form the saints, only from God, does true revolution come, the definitive way to change to the world.” Unlike most youth events I’ve experienced in evangelical subculture which usually just invite kids to stop having sex, Benedict XVI was inviting these young people to a mode of political discipleship intimately tied to the Church (this is not about a “private Jesus” he said) and the sacraments.

Admittedly, I’m still bothered by a deep tension in Benedict XVI’s vision: on the one hand, he argues that true justice and true revolution are tied to the Cross and the Church; on the other hand, he speaks in more generally theistic, natural-law-like terms because he wants to invoke God’s justice as something to which Europe (as such) should be subject. So there is a lingering nostalgia for Christendom. Or, if I could put it otherwise, there is a deep tension, I think, between his Christological/crucicentric emphasis and his natural law desires. What would correct this, or at least humble the natural-law side of the tension, is a more robust account of sin coupled with a more specific pneumatology. Why should we think that “Europe” would embrace the foolishness of the cross?