Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1993
Volume 5, Number 1

World Youth Day: A Personal Reflection

Maryanne Stevens, RSM
Associate Professor of Theology

Being a Roman Catholic woman, I suffered considerable cognitive dissonance while listening to the various exchanges between the pope and our public officials and youth from around the world during the World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado, August 11-14, 1993.

The very television image of John Paul II descending the airplane steps in Denver raised my blood pressure as I recalled the Time magazine cover depicting his 1983 arrival in Nicaragua only to shame the kneeling Ernesto Cardinal, a priest and an official in the Sandanista government. A priest in political office is an oxymoron, admonished John Paul II. Putting aside the question of how this could be said by the same one who negotiated with a variety of world powers for the support of Poland's Solidarity movement, I will never be able to reconcile the public gesture of humiliation toward one of the church's own. Then my blood continued to boil as I thought of Archbishop Hunthausen, Agnes Mary Monsour, Teresa Kane and Charles Curran. How can I be a part of this Roman Catholic church with its misogyny, its scandals of every type, its suppression of thought, its bishops who too often overextend their authority, its rarely inspiring liturgy and its outdated symbols?

But then, there was John Paul II extending his arms in obvious empathy to the young adults from Bosnia and to the teen who told of his victories in the Special Olympics. There he was consulting with others about his speeches so as not to offend. There he was, script-aside, noting the irony of castigating the media (for its glorification of violence and pornography) for without the media his own power for moral leadership would be considerably thwarted. There he was leading our world's hope, our youth, in song and in prayer for peace, for life, yes, for life, not just for fetal life, for all life, especially the weakest and most vulnerable. There he was exchanging greetings with the national groups in attendance, calling out Israel's name and then Lebanon's assuming their cheers should mingle. There he was warmly interacting with President Clinton who, as leader of a country which often confuses the first amendment rights with a disavowal of the need for religious influence in the public arena, said he welcomed discussions with John Paul II because the pope was recognized as a strong voice calling for an end to hatred and to hunger everywhere, reminding people blessed with abundance to offer special comfort to the poor and dispossessed. And there were both President Clinton and Vice President Gore acknowledging the moral leadership of the Catholic church in its vast network of social services, its excellent educational services and its continued official messages against human rights abuses and other forms of violence.

That my cognitive dissonance remained and did not collapse into mere cynicism was not completely a result of sentiment. Surrounded by all our modern symbols--thousands of heat stroked teenagers, hundreds of souvenir hawkers and the ubiquitous Coca Cola overshadowed only by MacDonalds--John Paul II and his 1993 World Day of Youth, allowed me to entertain some hope for a renewed papacy.

The limits of the papal office remain an unresolved theological and a critical ecumenical question. A shocking lack of canonical norms governs papal actions and thus, although morally bound to consult with others, the pope may, without canonical reprobation, intervene in the affairs of a diocese or make decisions without consultation. On the one hand the Second Vatican Council declared that the pope, by virtue of office and as vicar of Christ, has full, supreme and universal authority, which can be exercised always and everywhere without needing the consent of the bishops. On the other hand the same Council taught that the pope is first a bishop and the primacy of the papal office is not over the bishops but among the bishops. The pope is "the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful" (The Constitution on the Church, #23). The bishops are not vicars of the pope but vicars of Christ (The Constitution on the Church, #27). This mix of the primacy of the pope and the mandate to collegiality presents Catholic theology and Catholic pastoral life with a difficult problem. Are we a community of communities with the pope as the symbol and foundation of our unity, or are we more like a multinational corporation with the pope as our Chief Executive Officer?

Theologically, the problem has been worked out in various ways, most notably, by distinguishing the circumscription of papal authority when taken together with the authority of the college of bishops from the authority the pope alone can exercise. From my point of view, some hope (albeit tinged with fear) arises from the theological understanding that the pope is not bound to any particular manner of exercising the functions of the office, that is, future popes do not have to exercise power in the same way as past or present popes. There is more comfort in knowing that the Bishop of Rome is not a "free agent," rather, the well being of the church is to be the subject of the office's effort. Hence the Bishop of Rome and, for that matter, all bishops are bound to take steps to ascertain revelation and to present it in adequate terms. Such steps include considering theological argument and exploring the faith of believers.

Pastorally, the style in which the pope exercises authority is crucial to the church universal's willingness to legitimize the moral and spiritual leadership of the office. If the pope is to act as a witness to the saving presence of Christ among us creating an atmosphere of love, peace and justice, then John Paul II's latest trip to the U.S. sets a good example. First, he claimed global citizenship with his ability not only to greet in many languages, but also to affirm a variety of cultural paths to the truth. Second, he resonated with some of the deepest struggles of the human heart: "Humanity as a whole feels the pressing need to give sense and purpose to a world which is increasingly complicated and difficult to be happy in." Third, he exhorted us to live from our highest ideals, "Place your intelligence, your talent, your enthusiasm, your compassion and your fortitude at the service of life." Finally, he was not afraid to concede that the church is, at times, a counter sign. He asked the gathered bishops, "From our words and actions do they [young people] know that the church is indeed a mystery of community . . . and not just a human institution with temporal aims?" To Colorado Catholics, he said, ". . . the church herself has not escaped reproach . . . I have already written to the bishops of the United States about the pain of the suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar . . ." In short, he presented some challenging ideals in such a way that those searching for truth could, at least, really consider them.

My hope for the papacy and, indeed, for our church, remains clouded--too much experience and the memory of the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's resounding claim, "original sin is the only Christian doctrine for which we have empirical evidence." But watching the television coverage of John Paul II in Denver reminded me of the letter to the Galatians, "let us not grow weary for we shall reap if we do not lose heart."