It’s hard to imagine Flannery O’Connor at World Youth Day. As a child, she marked the jacket of her journal with the warning “MIND YOUR OWN BIDINIS.” As an adult, she thrived in places like Yaddo and Andalusia, where people, by and large, did exactly that. Of the crowds on the New York City subways, she wrote, “Although you see a few people you wish you didn’t know, you see thousands you’re glad you don’t know.” It would be unwise to hope that her reaction to the festivities in Madrid would be much different.
This week, in National Catholic Reporter, John Allen, Jr. advises readers that “one can debate…the merits” of the happy-clappy, ad extra style of World Youth Day, “but not its staying power.” His tone is that of a man hosting a documentary on man-made global warming: he apparently expects his readers to believe the news reluctantly, as they would any inconvenient truth.
Concerning the factuality and the durability of this new loud, flashy, extroverted style of worship and witness, I am not so hard a sell. Until recently, I attended a parish full of college students; seeing is believing. When I’m being fair-minded and objective, I can even see its value. This is, after all, the age of the New Evangelism, and evangelizing is not fit work for homebodies, and never has been. As the song reminds us, way back in the High Middle Ages, St. Dominic:
S’en allait tout simplement,
Routier, pauvre chantant,
En tours chemins, en tous lieux,
Il ne parle que du bon Dieu…
[St. Dominic] went singing on his poor and simple way;
He had it really hard.
But everywhere he went, he spoke only of the Lord…
Nor was the great Spaniard above a bit of culture war:
A l’époque où Jean Sans Terre,
D’Angleterre était le roi,
Dominique, notre père,
Combattit les albigeois.
When King John Lackland of Albion
Was sealing Magna Carta,
Our Father, Dominic,
Fought the Cathars with holy ardor!
Even if, as I’ve pointed out, evangelical Catholicism plunders the tropes of evangelical Protestantism, I’m truly stumped for a workable alternative. It’s a question of horses for courses; when it comes to calling middle-class Americans to the altar, nobody does the trick like the Bible Christians. If lay American missionaries preached the Gospel to their neighbors in the style, say, of Holy Ghost Fathers pitching the Congolese in King Leopold‘s day, they’d have no luck at all.
For all that, it gives me hives. I have always been one of those people for whom three’s a crowd, four’s a mob, and five is a pack — or, if I’m feeling especially surly that day, a herd. According to Myers and Briggs, my personality fluctuates between INTJ and INFJ. The acronyms stand for “Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging” and “Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling Judging.” Boiled down, that means that when my head’s in charge, I’m a curmudgeon, and when my heart’s in charge, a bitch.
From what I can tell, this is far from the ideal mindset for young Catholics. For several months last year, I dated Marcela, a woman somewhat younger than myself, who led the local youth ministry. Marcela is a gem of a human being in every way. So, objectively, were most of her friends. Maybe three or four stuck to the group because they lacked the skills to build lives of their own; the overwhelming majority were there out of a sincere commitment to living out their faith — and because they just couldn’t get enough of each other
The first motive I could respect. The second baffled me, and before long, nearly cost me my sanity. It meant that about half of my dates took place in the midst of company-strength maneuvers. Whoever‘s seen Godfather I will recall a scene where Michael Corleone, on the lam in western Sicily, courts a local girl. First, we see the happy couple strolling toward the camera, chatting and flirting. Then we see about fifty villagers marching heavy-footed behind them. So it was with Marcela and me. It’s no wonder that, after a car bomb turns the girl into pesto, Michael goes back to his New England WASP. Another round of Sicilian-style dating would have made him shoot himself in the eye, instead of Moe Green.
Indeed, my friends-in-law may have acting from some of the same concerns as the village chaperones. On one occasion, I spent the night at Marcela’s condo. Though I had been, as they used to say, a gentleman (and she a lady), she asked me to hide myself while Lisa, one of her ministry friends, came to call.
“This is absurd!” I cried. “You’re free, mestiza and 21. In fact, you’re 30. Lisa’s not your parole officer — what the hell should it matter what she thinks or doesn’t think?”
She answered serenely: “Lisa feels responsible for helping me make good decisions. If she thinks I’m not, she’ll get very upset, and I’ll have to spend an hour calming her down.”
I suggested to Marcela I come down the stairs naked and swat her on the ass, in the hope of giving Lisa a heart attack that would free us from her oversight forever. “Please don’t,” begged Marcela. And because she flashed me her puppy-dog eyes, I stomped back upstairs, carrying the shoes I’d left, self-incriminatingly, on the landing the night before. There, I squirreled myself away, like Anne Frank, for the next hour. We lasted about two more weeks.
I wouldn’t bother mentioning any of this if I didn’t consider myself the sucker in a flagrant bait-and-switch. This is simply not how I’d have forecast the future of the Catholic Church. All the images I carried in my head before beginning my catechesis were planted there by my mother, who grew up in a lower-middle-class Irish-American family, mostly during the pontificate of Pius XII. Her account was admirably uncolored by nostalgia: the priests of her parish would never be mistaken for Spencer Tracy; she remembers them as a pair of standard-issue liturgy queens. Even in their habits, nuns weren‘t especially holy; they ran the gamut from crabby to sickly-sweet, and told stories about how Jesus was the only person in history to reach a height of exactly six feet. Pope Pius never reminded my mother, as he reminded Claire Booth Luce, of a gothic cathedral. On second thought, maybe he did: he struck her as “very old” and “kind of scary.” When the Simpsons first came on the air, she claimed to see a bit of him in C. Montgomery Burns.
The point is, that Church might claim your soul, but she would never go out of her way to hold your attention. In that, she was tailor-made for melancholic self-medicators. As long as you showed up for Mass (and, of course, for confession), nobody expected you to be joyful. If my mother experienced a single joyful moment in the course of her pre-Conciliar childhood, it came when JFK defeated his Quaker rival. And that only lasted until the Bay of Pigs.
I had expected that Pope Benedict, being old and square, would restore the Church to her dour past. This just goes to show how little I understood the man. Liturgical dancing may be out, but Christian contemporary music on adoration nights is in. Yes, that’s right — people have figured out ways to jazz up the one instance where sitting still and shutting up might still be considered reasonable behavior.
Ultimately, I’m not that concerned for myself. At my age, I’m past the WYD cutoff, and have, in any case, achieved a kind of spiritual self-reliance. The people I’m worried about are the tetchy, introverted millennials. If this is the only Church they’ve ever known, why would they not run screaming from it? Actually, John Allen may have uncovered their niche when he writes of a tension between “an open and optimistic wing committed to ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy‘… and a more defensive cohort committed to waging cultural war.” In other words, let the jocks and the student council types advertise their faith with a smile. The trench-coat mafia can amuse itself chasing people around with photos of aborted fetuses.
Well, that’s some comfort. But still, I think the Church owes her less people-friendly youngsters a World Youth Day all their own. I picture tens of thousands of 18-34s sitting in a big field, chain-smoking and ignoring each other pointedly. Even loners have the right to know they’re not alone.