Rumors of the Catholic Church's demise in America have been greatly exaggerated. But then, the Catholic Church is used to outliving those who predict its doom.
Two threats have loomed large for the Church this year. The horrendous scandals of priests abusing children and of bishops failing to react appropriately is one. The hurt to the victims, the scandal to those who learned of it later and the wounded relationship between bishops and their flocks have been painful and destructive.
But the other threat to the Church has been the media hype that accompanied these very real scandals — hype that took a problem that involves less than half of 1% of all priests (according to Associated Press) and tried to make it look like the priesthood itself is suspect.
Journalists speculated that the abuse scandals would hurt the numbers of attendees at World Youth Day. They were wrong. Pilgrims flocked to World Youth Day, 800,000 slogging through mud and rain for the final Mass. If the Pope hadn't planned to travel to Latin America for enormous canonization events immediately following World Youth Day, the numbers would have rivaled other recent World Youth Days.
Papers like USA Today thought that a frail Pope doddering over a Church crippled by abuse and dissent was the real story of the Catholic Church today — so said their story choices for the day the Holy Father arrived in Toronto. Instead, the news out of Canada was about an energetic Pope overcoming physical hardship through courage and determination. Pictures of his arrival showed young people bursting into tears of emotion and waving words of love on banners to greet him.
Photos in the secular press from World Youth Day events showed young people going to confession in a park and on gym floors, kneeling on asphalt after Communion. Teens from all over the world prayed together, their smiling faces tear-streaked, and they walked right past the few, lonely detractors.
Sometimes, John Paul seems to be working in a special partnership with Providence. His high-profile events in Canada and Latin America were scheduled long before the abuse situation devolved into an American media feeding frenzy. But they are just what is needed at this moment, on this continent, a vivid reminder of the purpose and special power of the Catholic Church.
One sentence of the Pope's sums up what the real story of the Church is today. “Dear friends,” said John Paul, “the aged Pope, full of years but still young at heart, answers your youthful desire for happiness with words that are not his own.”
Young people have heard plenty of offers of happiness — from MTV, from credit card companies, from politicians, even from religious people who promise an easy, self-centered faith. But all of those voices offer happiness in words that are very much their own. Here comes a man who is no longer attractive physically, offering happiness the hard way, according to Christ. And the young people eat it up.
When the Holy Father visited Poland in the 1980s, his presence and his words started an interior revolution in the people that made it just a matter of time before the communist rule there crumbled. More accurately, John Paul reminded Poles what they already were and unleashed their most authentic spirit.
We hope that the Pope's visit to the Americas, in an entirely different set of circumstances, will have the same effect. The self-doubt and the constant attention on the sins of the past can put the Church in a stasis.
The Pope who gave the “mea culpa” address during the Jubilee Year has shown the way out: forgiveness, fearlessness and faith.