“There is nothing else in the world that could bring together young people from Africa, from the Americas, from Europe, from Asia and from the greatest continent of all, Australia, nothing else. The Olympics brings them to the same place but at the Olympics, these Aussies and Americans in the sanctuary at the moment would be fighting each other for medals. Here, we’re all on the same team. We’re all on Jesus Christ’s team. Hold on to that thought in the days ahead. Nothing else can bring the world together like Jesus Christ can bring the world together.
As you just heard, I was coordinator of the last World Youth Day held in Sydney, Australia in 2008. Thousands of young people say that they encountered God very personally there. Faith and idealism was deepened. That it was the best week of their lives so far. And amidst the massive crowds that had to be gathered and transported and fed and accommodated and toileted and the rest – and I had to learn about all those things – amidst the complexity of those huge events, there were so many individual personal stories about God and me. Let me tell you just a few.
Philip, a young atheist from New Zealand was persuaded by his mother to come to World Youth Day. He told a young nun, “You have this life, this flame about you. You’re so full of joy and I want that for myself.” It was the beginning of a profound conversion for him. Two other sisters told me how they met some young people in the street from communist China. They were in Sydney for university not for World Youth Day. They knew practically nothing about Christianity. But the sisters talked them into coming to the opening mass with them and they gave them a crash catechism course along the way. By the time of the consecration at the mass, these Chinese young people were crying. They had got it.
The visiting bishop from Canada – and we see those wonderful maple flags over there – wrote about the number of ordinary Australians that he met on the street, the railway or in pubs. I don’t know how many pubs that bishop visited. Canadians do have a name for it. And he wrote, “For not people of faith, these people I met were filled with wonder and curiosity and joy at how well the young people behaved and their enthusiasm for Jesus Christ. A few of them said it really raised deep questions for them for they knew they would have to reflect upon once World Youth Day was over. This is a great working of the Holy Spirit” he said. It raised deep questions for them.
From very early, young children ask questions. What is it? Is it me or not me? What does it taste like? How do I manipulate it? Why Mommy, why Daddy? Why universe?
At first, babies think they are the universe or that the whole purpose of the universe is to satisfy their wants. In due course, they discover rivals for the attention of the universe like their brothers and sisters – if they’re lucky enough to have them – and the complexity of negotiating with these rivals.
As they become increasingly reflective, children discover not only that the universe is not them and not even for them, but that the universe doesn’t need them. They don’t even have to exist. They come to understand that there was a time when they didn’t exist, that they were brought into existence and constantly sustained by others. And that their continued existence is rather tenuous. Eventually, as I said, they learn that the universe too comes and goes, depends each part on other parts for its beginning and its existence.
This is natural science, the study of the what and how of things which we learn at school or by reading or by our own exploring. But behind those explorations, there’s a deeper awe before the mystery of existence itself. And those deep questions that even guys in pubs starting asking themselves when they see World Youth Day happening.
Why is there anything at all rather than nothing at all? Does the universe have to exist? How can that be given its comings and goings, its causes and effects, its wholes and its parts? Is there something necessary that grounds our unnecessary world? Is there something unchanging that sustains our changing world? I know I don’t have to be. I know you don’t have to be.
There was a time when I didn’t exist and a time will come when I’ll be dead. In the meantime, why this me and this universe? What am I for? Is there more for me when this life is over? Does that something, that someone behind the universe care about me, have a plan for me? Our deep wonder and awe at the beauty, the complexity, the resilience, the vulnerability of the universe and of ourselves is the beginning of the adventure of science but also of the adventure of religion.
Science helps explain the what and the how of things but not the ultimate why. Our inner child keeps asking, “But Daddy, why?” We’re left wondering not just how the world is but that the world is.
As a physicist, Stephen Hawking, once remarked, “What is it that breathes fire into these equations and makes there a world for them to describe? Wise men and women through the ages have concluded that there are only two possible answers. Either there is not reason, it just is, the way it is but there’s no ultimate cause, no ultimate sense to make of it all. Or there is some cause and sustainer of things, of all life and being and meaning. Some necessary being that gives the world its existence and sustains it without which or whom the world would not exist.
Some things are mysteries. I don’t mean theological Sudoku puzzles that are hard to solve. I don’t mean gobblety-gook that no one can understand. By mysteries I mean things that are so profound yet intelligible that we can explore them and learn about them and come to understand them more and more and more and still never exhaust them.
Take the mystery of evil especially of innocent suffering. Or the sometimes more stunning mystery of good, such as the hard loving that some people do in the face of exhaustion, in gratitude or persecution. Or the mystery of human life that parents experience when awe struck at the baby that came from them and yet they’re sure can’t just have come from them; or the mystery of a spider’s web or the Milky Way or our own minds or hearts or so much else in the natural world.
It’s not just big or small or intricate or simple but truly wonderful, full of wonders. All these things we can explore from different perspectives. Natural science, social science, the arts, the trades but still there is more to know. God is the first and greatest mystery and before Him we gape uncomprehending, God.
Our minds glimpse but never fully comprehend the mystery of God. We see and know things God has made and can point to Him as the source of being – creativity, life, knowledge, love. For this is very partial because for every similarity between the creature and the creator, there are big differences, too. That’s why the postures of the ancients towards God was to bow or kneel, to cover their eyes. God is transcendent and He is tremendous. That is, God is something that makes us tremble with terror and delight. To have faith in God is not to identify and comprehend yet one more object in the universe. God is not a thing. To know God is not to know something like our dad, writ large, or a kryptonite immune Superman or a kind of super computer with Wikipedia on it only more reliable. No, God is not in or of our universe.
But to believe in God is to believe the whole universe has a source and direction and meaning. It’s to ask the big questions and to be ready for some unexpected answers.
Now it’s risky saying God is not a creature but the source of creatures. That God is not a thing, but the reason for things. That God is the big “B” being behind all beings. It’s risky saying that because it can make God sound rather remote and hypothetical like a math theorem or an alien got the universe going and then zipped away into hyper-space.
But to believe firmly in God is to believe there is a meaning to the universe, a meaning that includes not only the big bang and the laws of nature but each individual human being and every life, our lives, every day. It’s to believe that there is a beauty, a wisdom, a guiding hand, a universal law, an ultimate Truth, a Purpose behind the story of everything. To grasp and hold on to this big idea, to have it planted firmly in our hearts is called faith.
There are three more things about faith that I’d like to say and I’ll say them much more quickly, because it’s hot. Hot because of the Holy Spirit whose Mass we’ll celebrate later. Hot because the Holy Spirit is breathing into and out of every one of you, and you’re hot; not just temperature-wise but hot with God. So, three more quick things about faith.
I’ve said that faith is the ability to grasp and hold on to. That big idea to have that planted firmly in our hearts; the big idea that there is a Beauty, a Wisdom, a guiding hand, a universal law, an ultimate Truth, a Purpose behind everything including me. But my three more thoughts are first that the awe at the heart of faith, at the beauty and truth and goodness of things, at the inexhaustible mystery of things, at the impossibility of ever grasping the awesomeness of things is something worth exploring all the way to the grave and beyond.
It’s not just little kids who ask, “Why Mommy, why Daddy? What’s that?” We are all at heart explorers. And at your age, there’s a very special kind of exploring to be done, exploring the big questions of the universe of God and of me, exploring the big question about what I’m for, what I will do with my life.
Secondly, that beauty and truth and goodness that we grasp for all our limitations is something we can come to know something of and know with certainty. Appreciate with wisdom and live with passion.
And thirdly, that sort of seeking and finding requires commitment. Be awake to all dangers says Saint Paul. Stay firm in your faith. Be brave and strong to everything in love. That’s brave faith, adult faith. After saying this, “what can we add” says Paul. “With God on our side, who can be against us?” Sadly, some people never grow up spiritually. They may be very knowledgeable and sophisticated in their particular profession or art or science. Yet on the level of faith they remain five-year-olds. They never go on pilgrimage beyond their own little world that they know. They never read or study or reflect on the big questions as adults. They leave their faith stunted at the level of Santa Claus, a vague memory or sentiment from their childhood.
And then as young adults, unable to reconcile this new adult knowledge and experience with the childish faith, they either live with a kind of split personality, religious children on Sundays and sophisticated adults every other day or else they throw away their childhood religion and think themselves very sophisticated and grown up because they don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. They call themselves, then, agnostic or atheist which sounds more adult.
But that, frankly, is intellectual and spiritual laziness. “Brothers and sisters,” says Saint Paul, “Don’t be childish in your outlook. Grow up in Christ.” If people are going to abandon their Catholic faith as adults they should at least know what or who they are abandoning understood in an adult way.
Tomorrow’s catechesis is going to focus on that question, the Who question. Faith is all very well but faith in what, in Whom? Tomorrow we’ll consider what the encounter with Jesus Christ does for our outlook and identity. To say my Lord and my God is to change everything, deepen everything, find a new joy in everything.
And so on Friday, we’ll consider what it means for who and what we are in the world and for the world.
But let me conclude today’s talk with one last thought. The world needs you to ask the big questions and not be satisfied with the glib answers. Secularism with is amnesia about God is pushing faith and mystery to the margins. Sells you short by saying your questions are meaningless or too hard or to profitable and that you should be satisfied with just accumulating wealth and gadgets or with the physical and emotional roller coaster ride of endless experiences and partners but with no firm faith for commitments, no self sacrifice, no possibility of transcendence.
Secularism sells you short because by God’s grace you really are capable of so much more than this. You have the power and passion within you to do great things. That power and passion is faith and humanity in which God and humanity are revealed in all their possibilities.
Secularism sells you short because without reference to God, without relationship with Him, we quickly lose sense with our own dignity and purpose. But if I can declare that I believe in God who creates and sustains this wonderful world visible and invisible, that I believe in his communication to me through the natural world and my own reason informed by faith and by the scriptures and by the sacraments. That I believe in Jesus Christ is the word for my mind and in the Holy Spirit, who is inspiration for my heart. If I can say I believe, then my life is built on rock, firm and secure.
If I can say I believe these things, then I must say also we believe. We, that church that is big enough for all the world. The only thing big enough for all the world drawn together by Jesus Christ, I believe. In my diocese, we have a movement called Theology On Tap. It’s only one of about 80 active youth groups and movements that we have.
A group of us go to a local pub each month to discuss a theological topic, so it’s not just Canadian bishops that can be found in pubs. We get a good speaker and a good topic and have plenty of discussion. Five, six, sometimes seven hundred young people join us there at the pub. They’re ordinary, exuberant, diverse young people. They come from every cultural background like a mini World Youth Day.
They’re not religious fanatics, just young people with hearts and heads big enough to wonder, believe and commit. It’s great fun and great support for young people to be surrounded by other young people asking the same big questions as them who believe the things they do, who can encourage and strengthen them. And with whom they can have a good time.
The church and the world right now needs young people with those sorts of questions and answers. Firm in faith, firm in the faith not lazy about it or angry about it, not against things so much as for things, not against anyone but for someone in particular, for Jesus Christ. And because of that, for every other human person from Africa and Asia and the Americas and Europe and Australia.
I believe, we believe, the Church needs you. Thank you.”