WORLD YOUTH DAY AND DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
by Ted Schmidt
While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here we are preaching a crucified Christ. 1.Cor 1:23
He taught us by example that we too must shoulder that cross which the world and the flesh inflict upon those who search after peace and justice.
Gaudium et Spes, Vatican 2
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
World Youth Day 2002 has come and gone. Despite having the lowest attendance of any WYD and running up a deficit of $30 million dollars it was judged by organizers as a huge success and by one bishop, "a miracle of faith." The president of the Canadian Conference of Bishops Jacques Berthelet maintained "it has brought new life to the Church." The problem is with all of this inflated language is that one cannot prove such statements. Undoubtedly, many people had a good time and several foreign visitors combined WYD with a holiday. As somebody who watched the whole program quite closely (I was a commentator for Vision TV, Canada’s multifaith network) I was very impressed with the public liturgies like the Stations of the Cross and the papal Mass and Vigil. They were simply outstanding as spectacle and pageantry. And who can top a pope descending by helicopter like a Hollywood super hero?
The whole event gave the Roman Catholic church a much needed break from the horrendous news from the south—over 300 priests charged with sex crimes and maybe worse, the revelation that over two thirds of bishops including those of major sees, recycled pedophiles and put more children in danger. This nightmare legacy of a clerical caste more committed to the preservation of the institution than the pain of the victims has sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church and exposed the weak caliber of bishops appointed under this pontificate. This debilitating story, so injurious to the faithful and the church at large has been front-page news in the USA for a year and cannon fodder for the late night talk shows. WYD was a welcome relief for the Catholic Church –good press for a week! But again, the nagging question resurfaces: did this really
have much to do with faith?
Some may find this a strange question, but I think it would have resonated with a man, martyred by the Nazis at the end of World War ll. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The eminent Lutheran theologian, had been a leader in the underground church in Germany in the 30’s, part of what became known as the Confessing Church, so named for the apparent radical conviction that confessed that Jesus Christ, not Adolf Hitler was Lord. Bonhoeffer resisted the church’s tepid resistance and it cost him his life. In 1937, he penned his classic The Cost of Discipleship. The first words of the book said it all: "Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church. We are fighting today for costly grace." Bonhoeffer was absolutely convinced that the Church in Nazi Germany had sold out and as a Lutheran pastor he was appalled at how the cross of Christ, so central to St. Paul, ("we come preaching a Christ crucified") had been forgotten. His analysis was bold and forthright:
"The nation became Christian and Lutheran but at the cost of true discipleship…cheap grace had won the day. The price we are paying today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy at making grace available at too low a price. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition…We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard."
I wish I did not see eerie parallels with the Christianity of today. And while I do not wish to single out WYD as particularly susceptible to "cheap grace" I would like to make a few points —which I made a month before to one of our bishops. At this point I was getting quite agitated with the WYD Cross traveling across the country and the emotional outpouring attached to it. One of the organizers had told me that the Cross was a "gimmick" to rally people. Now, I understood what he meant. This cross was simply a piece of wood being carried by young people from place to place. It had little to do with the cross of Jesus Christ. Let me repeat this for emphasis: the WYD cross had little to do with the cross of Jesus Christ which always and everywhere means discipleship, losing your life to gain it, solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.
I told this particular cleric that, even though I understood what the idea was behind it, for me the Cross is no gimmick. This WYD cross was garlanded with flowers; the real cross had
blood on it. It beckons us to follow Jesus to the side of history’s victims. Should we opt for this cross, there will be few people cheering us as they did the WYD cross carriers as they reached
their next town or destination. More likely there will be a torrent of abuse rained on real disciples, the same type of vituperation which "the spat-upon Messiah," Jesus heard at the original crucifixion. Dom Helder Camara, that great Latin American bishop put it beautifully when he said
"We must have no illusions
We shall not walk on roses;
People will not throng to hear us and applaud;
We shall not always be aware of divine protection.
If we are to be pilgrims for justice and peace
We must expect the desert."
During the WYD liturgies and homilies there was some abstract understanding of this, the central symbol of Christianity. After all the prime symbols of this WYD were salt and light…taken from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5-7) where Jesus tells the original disciples they will be called blessed, "when people revile and persecute you." (Matt.5:11) John Paul ll made copious references to salt and light and at the end, invited all the pilgrims, "to put on the cross." Indeed the final liturgy had as its first reading the powerful Isaiah 58 passage which basically says—God is not too interested in liturgy and fasting, but rather wants us to "loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free." This is damn hard work—this is risk taking, precious little of which I have seen in the Canadian Catholic Church in the past 20 years. Maybe we could have told the kids, before you are salt and light, you will be broken. Holding candles do not appropriate the real cross up on a summer night either…that is cheap grace.
Now it may be that somehow these pilgrims might in time get to understand this but as I wrote earlier the institutional Catholic Church in this country is not providing much leadership here. It has slashed social justice offices all across the country and naively thought that middle class parishes which are run for the benefit of the contented—not the poor or marginalized—will become powerful signs of the crucified Lord. They haven’t and they won’t until they truly embrace the social struggle for a transformed world.
We as Christians do not inhabit Hitler’s ugly Germany of the 1930’s but we are so comfortably immersed in a consumer culture which has sapped the vitality of the hard Gospel and substituted a bland contentment for serious discipleship. A sure sign of this immaturity is to watch the corporate types who hang off events like this and scramble to get near the Pope and hang their corporate logos off WYD. You will not soon see them any place soon vigilling in the rain, picketing or writing their MP’s or organizing for justice and peace. "Events" like WYD, along with the genuinely pious, attract spiritual tourists, mingling with the famous and powerful. It has ever been thus. The Gospel we are proclaiming today unfortunately has become sadly domesticated, empty of its power to challenge and transform the world. There is little understanding that Jesus was murdered for justice (the reign of God) and did not die for charity.
Bonhoeffer’s words haunt us today, at a time when orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy (right practice) has become an obsession in the Catholic Church. So Bonhoeffer described the church of his time:
"We confess that, although our Church is orthodox as far as her doctrine is concerned, we are no longer sure that we are members of a Church who follows her Lord…"
As the well-known German theologian J.B. Metz has said on numerous occasions: It is dangerous to be close to Jesus. It threatens to set us afire, to consume us and only in the face of this danger does the vision of the kingdom of God that has come near in him, light up."
WYD was a nice piece of entertainment, and a rallying point for Catholics, but the Gospel is always more than light entertainment and emotionalism. Until the Canadian Catholic Church understands that the Gospel stories are "dangerous stories" which may get us into trouble, we may satisfy the contented but we will never be a threat to the lords of the neoliberal world who are wreaking such havoc on God’s holy poor and on creation. And if we are no threat to this malformed world, cheap grace will continue to be dispensed as thin gruel for history.
Ted Schmidt is Editor of Catholic New Times and the author of Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood