The culture’s caricature of young people is not accurate, says Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who has been partaking in World Youth Day’s festivities this week.
In an exclusive interview with the Register on July 29 in Krakow, the U.S. Church leader stressed that while the world often sees young people as selfish and anti-religious, what he sees in St. John Paul II’s homeland is the complete opposite.
The archbishop also responded to how the Church in Poland upholds eternal values and discussed what can be done by religions, including Islam, to combat terrorism, in the wake of the horrific murder of a French priest this week.
First of all, could you speak about why you are accompanying these young pilgrims?
Well, first of all, I am here because I don’t like to pass up invitations [big smile]. So, if I get an invitation from the Pope, and when I get an invitation from my young people, who I love, I’ll say, “Count me in. All right.” So that’s why I’ve made it a part of my priesthood, part of my being a bishop and a pastor, to try to go to World Youth Days. If you go to one, you are hooked.
I don’t mind telling you, Deb, it’s a lot of work. I go through about three shirts a day, with just the perspiration, the walking — things might not always be on time. So I don’t mind telling you that there’s sacrifice involved, but that’s what a pilgrimage — as a matter of fact, that’s what life — is all about. And if a pilgrimage is supposed to be an icon of life, well, we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s sacrifice and hardship.
In spite of that, you love the World Youth Days; you get close to your kids. It gives me a booster shot of hope. I see young people completely going against the caricature with which the world and society treats them, namely as bratty, entitled, selfish, self-willful, anti-religious people.
I see them [being] extraordinarily humble, prayerful, reverent, eager to learn, eager for conversion of heart, eager to become even better Catholics and more faithful disciples of Jesus. I need this — I need this — I need this, because it’s like a doctor who needs to see healthy people because he has been dealing with the sick all day. It really becomes a tonic for my faith and hope.
When you see these thousands and thousands, and hundreds of thousands, who are exuberant about their faith, that’s a booster shot for me. So that’s why I come.
And you’re accompanying a group …
Yes, I came with, as a pastor, about 180 young people from the Archdiocese of New York.
Could you speak about your impressions here in Krakow during this World Youth Day? Can you share the experience of what it is like to be here with those who can’t be?
Well, you see the spontaneity of young people. We adults — I am 66 now — are saying, “Well, where do I go next? What’s planned? How do we get there? What are we going to do when we’re there? What are we going to eat?” The young people, on the other hand, just sort of “float,” in a good way. They become part of a wonderful energy at World Youth Day. And they just enjoy the now, the present. They relish what they are doing now and then sort of gradually move on to the next challenge, and that always impresses me. When you see them at night — I mean, I’d be going crazy — I see thousands of them waiting for the trams. I would be going crazy, Deb.
What are they doing? They’re singing, praying, laughing, hugging, meeting people. I’m thinking that their spontaneity, their naturalness, their freshness — and their innocence — is just phenomenal. And, thirdly, their genuine, genuine, genuine search for meaning and hope and their conviction that they have found the only Person who can give them meaning: Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
They’ll ask the perceptive questions. So this is the third day where I’ve had young people ask me questions. It’s like the Gospel again: “Can God really forgive my sins?” “Does Jesus really help us with our crosses?” “What do you tell people who have [family and friends who have] been slaughtered by terrorists and who are expected to forgive?”
Are those not the most perceptive questions? I had one the other day in which one young person said to me, “So you say this can be a change of life and everything: How does the Church help me make decisions? What does the Church, as a good mother, advise me when I am trying to make a good decision in life?” Well, he was talking about discernment. And I said, “Well, thanks for asking. You’re on the right track. Let me try my best to give you some of the tried-and-true wisdom of the Church.” To [get a question about] help with discernment, I’m thinking: “Wow.”
Before I return to a question about the Church in Poland, there is another I’d like to ask you. The Pope, on his flight from Rome to Poland, commented on the killing of the elderly French priest in France and said that we are at war, but not a war of religion. What do you think needs to be done to combat this terrorism? How can religions work together? What can Islam do to help?
Well, a number of things. First of all, we need to be realistic, to say: “Yes, there are religious extremists, religious fanatics and religious militants who hate Christianity and who will do anything to hurt us.” There is no use denying that. So we have to be realistic about that. No. 2, however, we have to say: “That is not religion.” Pope Francis has been eloquent in saying, “This is not religion. How dare anyone suggest that this is religion. And this is a perversion of religion.” So that there is a recovery of what true genuine religion is all about. No. 3, there is the invitation that Pope Francis has given to Islamic leaders: “Look, we are willing to say to you that we know that these extremists do not represent true, genuine Islam. Would you speak up a little more loudly on your part to reassure us of that?” So what he [the Pope] has done is to invite modern voices of Islam to say: “We need you. We need you on our side.”
The Church in Poland has such a strong faith and is full of practicing Catholics. Is there something that they have that can be seen as a model, or that the Church in the United States can bring back?
It can be used as a model for standing up for eternal values in a culture that very often snickers at and questions them. Poland is a pro at that. They’ve done it for a great part of their history. They did it in a particularly heroic way from 1939 to 1989, when they were under the oppression of the Nazis and the Communists. They were genuinely a light to the world, in reminding us that — to recover the truth in a culture of lies — the dignity of a human person — where the people were being stuffed in the ovens, and the sacredness of human life, when human life was being jackbooted by thugs, whether they be led by Hitler or Stalin — Poland kept its faith, knew its values, trusted God, like the people of Israel.
And now they are a light to the world.
based in Rome but has been reporting from
Krakow for World Youth Day.