With a little over a month to go until World Youth Day is celebrated in Sydney, the event is attracting more and more coverage in the media. Last Saturday the Sydney Morning Herald published a provocative article by Adele Horin looking at the event through the eyes of a an unbelieving mother in a household of religiously sceptical young people. In this response a Catholic mother with much experience of the mores of young people today, Kerry Gonzales, responds supporting Adele Horin's call for the fostering of greater religious tolerance in the wider Australian community but herself also expressing a different kind of scepticism about what World Youth Day is going to achieve. Will it convince the broad masses of young people or is it likely to fan the flames of the sort of religious intolerance recently exhibited in Sydney against the proposal to build an Islamic secondary college in the outer suburbs of Sydney at Camden?
Fanning the flames of militant atheism?
I read in Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald (7/6), an article by Adele Horin that linked the extravaganza that is World youth Day to a rise in the need, within her own family, to preach religious tolerance. The article raised some very important and scary issues, which had not previously crossed my mind.
I, like many other Australian Catholics, have had many reservations about World Youth Day. The message it hopes to pass on and the evangelising it expects to achieve are meaningless, for me, in light of the money spent and the face of the Catholic Church that I believe the event portrays. Yet, putting all my concerns aside, the Horin article highlighted a negative of WYD that I had not even considered. As WYD has "succeeded in thrusting religion onto the front pages and the nightly bulletins", Horin, a non-believer, has found herself faced with the ever increasingly difficult task of promoting religious tolerance within her own family. From her interactions with her sons, Adele sees WYD "fanning the flames of militant atheism" — a scary idea and far from anything that the organisers had anticipated or hoped for.
The advocates of religious tolerance face a tougher task…
"When religion turns into a massive, publicly funded event that is in your face on a daily basis, the advocates of religious tolerance face a tougher task." In this instance all the money spent on advertising WYD may in fact be turning youth off religion, rather than drawing them in. Rather than just being indifferent to religion, Horin asserts that such public religion is in fact creating antipathy to all religion. In this context WYD, and the religious beliefs behind it, can be linked, in the mind of young people to "Militant Islamists, the wacky Christian right and Jewish extremists, each believing their religion is the one true path and prepared to wage war to prove it."
"To young non-believers inclined to see the world in black and white, the zealots with their literal interpretation of the holy books embody the authentically religious in all their absurdity. Moderate Muslims, Christians or Jews are dismissed with contempt as hypocrites who cherry-pick the palatable bits from the holy books."
This outlook on religion by young non-believers is also very chilling as I thought seeing the world in black and white was the preserve of the religious right. It would seem, in this case then, that moderate young people, at least in regard to religion, are hard to find, which does not augur at all well for religious tolerance in our society. Add to this mix, WYD, with all its "more arcane aspects of faith", and you wonder whether religious tolerance or lack of it will become a major blight in our times. When you consider some of the ugly images in the recent Camden school fiasco*, in some instances it already has. While WYD may have lots to offer staunch believers, it has little to offer those on the periphery of Catholicism or non-believers and in fact has the potential for more harm. Like Horin, I am at a loss to find any sense, religious or otherwise, in shipping a long dead Italian to our shores to become a holy exhibit. An "exhibit of what" I can't even begin to comprehend.
Parents ought take a lead in fostering religious tolerance…
It is a troubling idea that such an events as WYD, rather than bringing people together and opening lines of communication, may in fact be helping to create a less religiously tolerant society in Australia. I agree with Horin when she says that "Religions are best kept as a private matter of faith, with the state favouring none". God forbid that the fruits of WYD are further dissention and intolerance, particularly if it is being driven by our young people, themselves becoming more entrenched at either end of the religious spectrum. It seems to be a strange time we are living in when it falls to "the family member with the longest pedigree as a non-believer" to valiantly strive to hold the line against religious intolerance and battle the counter productive effects of such seemingly "feel good" events such as WYD. I thank God though that Horin takes her role seriously and actively works against religious intolerance, rather than being indifferent or worse still encouraging such thinking in young people. Many Catholic and other religious parents would do well to follow her example and be sure that we are helping to create a broader tolerance of religions other than our own, rather than having our children believe, that our beliefs are the only legitimate ones.
The promoters within the Catholic Church tell us that WYD will have a positive spiritual effect on young Catholics and the community in general, yet this is a claim that is very difficult to substantiate. While the events may be spiritually uplifting for the participants, I for one strongly doubt that more vocations or bums on seats will be the long term outcome, particularly here in Australia. The government tells us that, even though there may be some inconvenience, there will be a significant economic gain to be made from the religious event. Those inconvenienced by WYD may not be so convinced and whether the economics forecasts will prove accurate is debatable, especially as the pilgrims will be sleeping in school halls and billets and food will be provided for them. Big spenders, I don't think so, and what little they do spend on religious items goes into Church coffers anyway.
I was privileged this week to attend a performance of the Soweto Gospel Choir. This group of about 25, mostly unaccompanied singers, powerfully presented joyful worship, in a vibrant and colourful way. While a lot of the singing was not in English, this choir made me feel much more in tune with God, than many of the Catholic religious events I have been involved in. My point being, I guess, that when you take away the smoke and mirrors from WYD, the Church behind all this, particularly in Australia, will still be one that is divided and unhealthy. So perhaps some of the time and energy expended on WYD may have been better spent on the Catholic Church making an serious attempt to heal itself, not only through reaching out to its youth, but extending a real and attentive ear to the rest of the Body of Christ.
IMAGE CREDIT: The main headline banner contains the wording of the principal scriptural theme for World Youth Day as highlighted on the official World Youth Day website at: www.wyd2008.org.
What are your thoughts on Kerry's commentary?
©2008 Kerry Gonzales