Church after Rio

In 1997, at the Journées mondiales de la jeunesse (JMJ) Paris, I had my first experience of “world church” and the world hasn’t seemed the same since.

Unlike most at Rio 2013, I admit mine was not exactly a typical experience of pilgrimage. Instead, as delegate of an international youth movement, I was part of a group of youth representatives from every corner of the Earth, who were spoiled with some pretty cool perks.

Courtesy of the Vatican, we had our special, clean quarters, where we participated in a weeklong discussion forum prior to the big event. (As I myself experienced at other World Youth Days, pilgrims can appreciate why “clean” quarters are a luxury!) While many walked and sweated, we were bussed in air-conditioned comfort for every major happening in the WYD calendar. Within the tidal wave of faithful that was the Final Mass, we had our assigned oasis close to the altar (not exactly “seats”—not even the Red Hats had those—but close enough).  We even had a special liturgy with Blessed John Paul II that culminated with a personal papal blessing.

Notwithstanding these little luxuries (and perhaps because of them!), JMJ Paris remains etched in my memory as a symbol of the richness in poverty, exuberance in simplicity, even joy in hardship that is “world church.” I have also followed the subsequent six WYDs with the same ambivalence that marks the yearly commemoration of one’s birthday, wedding anniversary or other special event: a mild nostalgia for the youth that was, and a sense of profound reverence for who one has become as fruit of that remarkable event in one’s life. Rio 2013 is no exception.

Much has been tweeted, posted, liked, blogged and otherwise “shared” about Pope Francis’ first momentous WYD. Much more, I’m sure, remains buried in the hearts of those present who, notwithstanding the power of all our new technologies, will never be able to express fully what they have experienced, nor quite make sense of it, even if they might forever be marked by it.

“Go and make disciples of all nations!” (Mt 28:19), the main theme echoed. But the first disciples invited to rebirth were the pilgrims themselves. Not merely the powerful psychological high that inevitably occurs in crowds where each is momentarily oned to strangers—that natural phenomenon is common enough—but the lasting impression, the indelible mark impressed in one’s story, that in Christian terms, can only be described as “Pentecost”.

I use this unabashedly theological term purposefully, but with some trepidation. For as many of us, Christians or not, argue ad nauseum about Church, churches and Churches (yes, even uppercase and lowercase make a difference); Christianity and other religions; belief and unbelief (or variants thereof), it is largely concealed and awkwardly overlooked that the essence of the Christian faith is not a baptismal certificate buried in some drawer, faithful attendance to Sunday or festa rituals, or even holding the moral high ground.

It is, quite simply, the witness of a personal encounter with the Risen Christ in his Holy Spirit. This fools’ wisdom means absolutely everything to those who know Pentecost; nothing to everyone else.

Yet, as remembered in the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-13), the birth of church and evangelization at Pentecost (the two presuppose each other) implies sharp differences, vast divisions, distinct “languages”—even of creed, religion or belief— through which mutual understanding and unity become possible. Disciples (or “Christians” as they come to be called) are not tepid or mindless followers of some quirky ideal or credo. They are carved out of the encounter with radical otherness through which and with whom, notwithstanding controversies, arguments and full-blown conflicts, they never cease to hope to become “one”, to be “holy”, to embrace “universality”, in unity with the original witnesses and companions of Jesus.

Nevertheless, Christians would be naïve to forget that Pentecost itself divides as much as it ties. The original story of fiery tongues recounts that as some marvel at the ecstasy of unity, others sneer that it is merely the effect of “new wine” gone to their heads (Acts 2:13).

Such, I’m sure, will be the legacy even of Rio 2013. Some will be reborn as the church of digital natives. Others will wake up with a nasty hangover and come to believe (with apologies to Marx) the old and all-too-human cliché that “faith” is but poison of the mind; religion, opium of the people.

Indifference and disbelief (as opposed to unbelief) re-emerge as the real stumbling blocks to wonder.

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