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God in Madrid

· The World Youth Day seen by the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner for literature ·

The following is a translation of the article by a Peruvian Nobel Prize winner which appeared in the Spanish newspaper “El País” on 28 August.

A fine spectacle: Madrid invaded by hundreds of thousands of young people who came from the five continents to take part in the World Youth Day at which Benedict XVI presided, turning the capital for a few days into a crowded Tower of Babel. All races, languages, cultures and traditions joined in a gigantic celebration for adolescents, students and young professionals from every corner of the earth. They came to sing, dance, pray and proclaim their belonging to the Catholic Church and their “addiction” to the Pope ( Somos adictos a Benedicto , “We are hooked on Benedict”, was one of the most recurring slogans).

Apart from the thousand people at Cuatro Vientos Air Base who fainted due to the merciless heat and required medical assistance, there were neither incidents nor serious problems. Everything took place peacefully, joyfully and in a general atmosphere of friendliness. The Madrileños , the people of Madrid, sportingly faced the challenges posed by the massive crowds that paralyzed Cibeles, the Gran Via, Alcalá, the Puerta del Sol, the Plaza de España and the Plaza de Oriente, while the small demonstrations against the Pope by lay people, anarchists, atheists and rebel Catholics provoked only minor incidents, some of which were even grotesque, such as when a furious group threw condoms at some very young girls, who, reciting the rosary with their eyes closed, were suddenly transfixed by fear, animated by what Rubén Darío used to call: “el blanco horror de Belcebú” [the white terror of Beelzebub]!

There are two possible ways of interpreting this event which El País described as “the largest gathering of Catholics in the history of Spain”. The first sees it as a festival, superficial rather than of religious significance, where young people from half the world seized the opportunity to travel, to be tourists, to meet new people, to have some fun and a few adventures: the intense but fleeting experience of a summer holiday.

The second views it not only as an outright rejection of the predictions that Catholicism is shrinking in today’s world, but as a proof that the Church of Christ retains her strength and vitality, and that the Barque of Peter is braving the dangers and storms that were threatening it with shipwreck.

One of these storms was set in Spain, where Rome and the government of Rodríguez Zapatero have often clashed in recent years and still maintain tense relations. Indeed, it is not by chance that Benedict XVI has travelled several times to this country, three times during his pontificate; for, apparently, “Catholic Spain” is not as Catholic as it was in the past. The statistics are fairly explicit. In July of last year nearly 80 percent of Spaniards declared that they were Catholic; a year later only 70 percent did so. Among the young, 51 percent claim to be Catholic, but only 12 percent of them say they practice their religion on a regular basis, while the rest do so sporadically or for social reasons (at weddings, Baptisms and so forth). The criticism that young believers – whether or not they are practicing – level against the Church focuses on her opposition to the use of contraceptives and the day-after pill, abortion and homosexuality, and the ordination of women.

My impression is that these figures have not been manipulated, to reflect a reality which – with higher or lower percentages – transcends the Spanish context and is indicative of what is happening to Catholicism in the rest of the world. Well, from my point of view this gradual erosion of the number of faithful in the Catholic Church, instead of being a symptom of her inevitable collapse and extinction, is a leaven stirring the vitality and energy that all those – tens of millions of people – who remain in her have demonstrated, particularly during the Pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

It is hard to imagine more different personalities than those of the last two Popes. The first was a charismatic leader, an agitator of crowds, an extraordinary orator, a Pontiff in whom emotion, passion and sentiments prevailed over pure reason.

The present Pope is a man of ideas, an intellectual, whose natural setting is in the library, the university lecture hall and the conference room. His shyness in the face of the multitudes is apparent in the way he addresses the masses, as though he were justifying himself, almost as if he were ashamed of himself. But this frailty is misleading since he is probably the most cultured and intelligent Pope the Church has had for a long time, one of the rare pontiffs whose encyclicals and books can be read without yawning even by agnostics like me (his brief autobiography is enchanting and his two books on Jesus are more than fascinating). His record is somewhat curious. In his youth he was a supporter of the modernization of the Church and contributed to the reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Council convoked by John XXIII.

However, he then moved towards the conservative positions of John Paul II, to which he has remained faithful to this day. Perhaps the reason for this was his intuition, or conviction, that had he continued to make the concessions which the faithful, pastors and progressive theologians were asking of him, the Church, due to internal struggles and sectarian disputes, would have ended up by disintegrating from within to become a chaotic, disorientated community. The dream of progressive Catholics of making the Church a democratic institution was just that and nothing more: a dream. No Church could be that without denying herself and disappearing. In any case, setting aside the theological context and bearing in mind only its social and political dimension, the truth is that while the Church is indeed losing believers and her ranks are shrinking, Catholicism today is more united, active and combative compared to the years in which it seemed on the verge of tearing apart and splitting up because of internal ideological strife.

Is this a good or a bad thing for the culture of freedom? If the State is secular and maintains its independence with regard to all Churches which — clearly — it must respect and allow to act freely, it is a good thing, because a democratic society cannot effectively fight its enemies — beginning with corruption — unless its institutions are firmly based on ethical values, unless there is within it a blossoming of rich spiritual life as a permanent antidote to the destructive, disruptive and anarchic forces that tend to govern individual behaviour when human beings feel free from all responsibility.

For a long time it was believed that religion, this elevated form of superstition, would disappear with progress in knowledge and democratic culture, and that science and culture would amply substitute it. This, we now know, was another superstition which reality has gradually demolished. Moreover we also know that culture, especially today, is incapable of carrying out this function which the free thinkers of the 19th century attributed to it with such great generosity and an equal amount of ingenuity. This is because in our day culture has ceased to be a serious and deep response to the great human questions about life, death, destiny and history as it sought to be in the past. On the one hand it has become an inconsequential light entertainment and on the other, a cabal of incomprehensible and arrogant experts, who have taken refuge in unintelligible jargon, light years from common mortals.

Culture has not been able to replace religion and will not be able to do so, except in small minorities, on the fringes in comparison with the wider public. The majority of human beings finds answers — or at least the feeling that a higher order exists, of which they are a part and which gives meaning and tranquillity to their existence — solely through a transcendence that neither philosophy, nor literature nor science have managed to justify rationally.

And however many very brilliant intellectuals may seek to convince us that atheism is the only logical and rational consequence of knowledge and of the experience gained by the history of civilization, the idea of definitive extinction will continue to be intolerable to the ordinary person, who will continue to find in faith that hope of life after death which they have never been able to relinquish. Religion, as long as it does not assume political power and, in this regard, as long as those in power can respect its independence and neutrality, is not only licit but even indispensable in a democratic society.

Believers and non-believers alike can rejoice over what happened in Madrid on those days when God seemed to exist and Catholicism seemed to be the one true religion, and all of us like good children walked on, the Holy Father taking us by the hand, towards the Kingdom of Heaven.

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