August may be behind us now, but last month offered two milestones we’d be smart to pay attention to. A month ago today, MTV marked its 25th anniversary, while just a few weeks back was the one year anniversary of Pope Benedict’s first foreign visit—to his native Germany, where he presided at World Youth Day in Cologne.
Not surprisingly MTV’s big birthday got an avalanche of coverage that acknowledged its role as a galvanizing force in the culture. But the first anniversary of the Cologne trip—where Benedict largely surpassed expectations and pumped up a crowd of young people estimated at over 1 million—largely went unnoted, even in the Catholic press and chattering circles.
That lack of mention is even more interesting when you consider the widespread interest in the German Pope’s first voyage as it approached. At the time, the discussion was dominated by questions about whether the reserved theologian could work the masses on the road in a manner approaching that of his actor/rockstar predecessor, who built the WYD celebrations into one of the cornerstones of his 27-year reign.
Despite their obvious age differences (25 years old vs 2000 years) and the seeming gap of mission, MTV and the Catholic Church have more in common than you’d think.
This occurred to me the other night while watching Lewis Black—one of my comedic heroes. Black was ranting about an MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show and referred to the network as “the people who have done everything they could in my lifetime to destroy music as I know it.”
Over the years, there’s been less and less music on MTV. It seems as if the cable giant got so caught up with its status as cultural lodestar that it forgot its essence. Similarly, the declining number of people in our parishes over the years is an indication that the Church has also gotten too ensnared in its own cultural status and forgotten its mission.
If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear a blame game going on inside the Church as to why young people are so hard to find outside of Catholic schools, college campuses and World Youth Days. The trajectory of the scapegoating usually runs from MTV to immodest dress to abortion to the so-called “chic” of atheism to gay marriage to… the Devil himself.
You’ll also hear a lot of proposed remedies. Some would say we need more orthodoxy, employing the theory that fear-mongering the young is just the way to get ‘em in line and fill the pews again. Others, seeing the success other denominations have had, would like to go the opposite way, water it all down, and get all happy-clappy with “U2charists” (i.e. liturgies using the music of U2), holding hands around campfires… whatever.
The problem is not the culture and the answer isn’t a revamped window-dressing or a return to ruler-slapping, but an even deeper return to the core.
Five days after his election as Pope, Benedict XVI declared “The Church is alive, the Church is young!” It’s not the case universally, but from my vantage I see way too many instances of a Church that presents itself to the world as old and dead.
A bishop I know has a great saying that’s stuck with me over the years: “The Church is not General Motors.” The Church might not be the same as a publicly held corporation like GM, but it certainly has shown a repeated tendency to act like General Motors. When I think of the auto giant the words “alive and young” don’t come to mind as much as assembly lines, controlling behavior, the stale comfort of the managerial class and loud professions of “serving” customers, whilst really serving a complacent, institutional imperative.
Sound familiar? Why would anyone want any part of that?
Too often the Church only shows its “young” face when the Boss in Rome gives props to it—but an overnight event in a cornfield once every three years doesn’t suffice on its own. And that lack of investment, the lack of life, the lack of youth shows. You see, for the Church to truly be alive and young, it has to act its age—which, to quote St Augustine, is both “ever ancient” and “ever new.” But always, always alive and vigorous even in its old age.
If the Church truly wishes to succeed in a pluralistic marketplace of ideas, every day has to be World Youth Day. Like MTV—its competitor in this marketplace—it must accept and cultivate the qualities of youth—a buzzing dynamism, an orientation toward the ideal, the belief that, indeed, the future is limitless in its possibilities and avenues of exploration. Unlike MTV, our road map for this journey, as always, is found in the Gospels.
Failure to Engage
The place where the daily disinterest occurs isn’t so much a battleground as an ignored market. If we’re really keen to make a turnaround, we must first be willing to simply read and take to heart the signs we see in the culture and accept them as what they really are—a commentary on our failure to engage the world, to cultivate youth and celebrate it as the sign of hope and a strong future. This isn’t done by beating young people over the head, playing on their fears, preaching ‘til their ears bleed or pandering to their tastes of the nano-second, but simply by being normal, human, open, vulnerable, fault-ridden, eclectic, hopeful, optimistic, alive.
The Church’s need to refine and renew is nothing to be ashamed of. Even MTV—the standard-bearer for being slavishly “relevant”—has slipped and become a member of the cultural Establishment it once tried to shake up. (If you need proof of the fall, just look at what’s happened to The Real World, or check out the laughably decadent parody the Video Music Awards has turned into.)
Fortunately the Church’s mission never gets old—and the purer and more human it stays, the better. We live it by simply being ourselves and always striving as individuals and as a Church to be that “perfect love [which] drives out fear.” Indeed, John Paul II said it best at his Inaugural Mass: “Be not afraid!”
The prophets of doom may very well be smart people, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that something that’s been around for 2,000 years should feel no sane threat from a cable channel. That is, unless it’s beaten us at our own game…. Has it?