Published August 2, 2001
The Catholic Difference
CRACOW. The Dominican basilica of the Holy Trinity, just off the market square of Cracow’s Old Town, hosts a weekly Sunday evening Mass for university students. The liturgy is magnificent: solemn without being stuffy, reverent without being saccharine. A splendid choir, composed of students and led by students, leads the jean-clad congregation in Taize chants and old Polish hymns, a fine blend of the contemporary and the traditional. The preaching is intense and the response to it is similar – teenagers and twenty-somethings are hanging on to every word of a homily as if their very lives depended on it.
That’s not just the way it is during the academic year, with its pressures for accomplishment; that’s the way it is during the summer holidays. This past July 1, shortly after the Jagiellonian University closed, I brought two old friends to the basilica for a look at the students’ Mass, warning them ahead of time that it might be a little “thin” at this time of year. I needn’t have worried. My friends were amazed at the size of the young congregation and by their fervor. “They’re not just here to fulfill an obligation,” one said. “They’re really praying. Did you see those faces?”
I did, and in them one can read the unfolding of the twenty-first century according to a story-line you won’t find in the newspapers or in academic social science.
The first things those young faces tell us is that enlightened opinion had it all wrong a hundred years ago, when it was confidently predicted that a maturing humanity, tutored by science, would “outgrow” its “need” for religion in the twentieth century. Things worked out rather differently. The twentieth century proved that human beings could indeed organize the world and our lives without God; but it also proved that, without God, we can only organize the world against each other, and in the most brutal ways. The students in the Dominican basilica in Cracow are the children and grandchildren of some of the principal victims of the secular-scientific hubris of the twentieth century.
Their faith shouldn’t be read as mere reaction, however. What I see in those young faces is the deeper truth of our times: that humanity has not lost its thirst for the transcendent, for a Truth and a Love that satisfy the deepest desires of the human heart. They have begun to find satisfaction for that thirst in Jesus Christ. They want to explore all that that discovery means. That exploration will shape the human future even more profoundly than politics, economics, and science.
The second thing to be discovered on Sunday evening in Cracow’s Basilica of the Holy Trinity is robust confirmation of the iron law of Christianity’s encounter with the modern world: Christian communities that maintain clear doctrinal and moral boundaries flourish, while Christian communities whose doctrinal and moral borders become porous, even invisible, decline and typically perish.
There is no contradiction, as some would have it, between the doctrinal and the pastoral. Doctrine is the vehicle that makes the pastoral pilgrimage of Christian life possible. And the young want, not pandering, but challenge. “Don’t ever settle for anything less than the moral greatness you’re capable of” – that’s been the message of Pope John Paul II at World Youth Days, and that’s what they preach in the Dominican basilica in Cracow. The response to both of these challenges shows us another truth: if you preach it, they will come.
The third thing one learns on Sunday evenings in Cracow is to expect the unexpected and to imagine the unimaginable. The parents, indeed the older brothers and sisters, of the young men and women I saw on July 1 never expected to live in freedom; yet they do. They never expected to see reconciliation between Latin-rite Catholics and Greek Catholics in Ukraine; yet they have. They never expected a Polish pope; yet they have experienced the unimaginable, and witnessed a son of their land change the course of history and become the moral reference point for the entire planet.
Don’t tell these young people that some things can’t change. They know that the Gospel helps us see possibilities amidst what seems impossible.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.