Reflections on World Youth Day and Challenges for Australian Youth Today: Address of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP to Affinity Intercultural Foundation, Auburn, Wednesday 14 March 2012
I am glad to be able to speak with you here tonight. I want to thank Mehmet Saral, President, and Ahmet Keskin, Executive Director, of the Affinity Intercultural Foundation for inviting me here tonight to be with you all. Thank you also for the kind introduction. This event illustrates the climate of respect and the greater sense of shared convictions on many matters that has grown up between the Catholic and Muslim communities in Australia, in no small part due to the work of Affinity. I congratulate you for this.
I have been asked to share with you tonight some reflections from my experience as the Coordinator of World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 and what that experience might say about our society. I will then explore some of the struggles for young people in Australia today which WYD and other initiatives of religious communities seek to address. Finally I will reflect on how understandings and responses in this area cast light on the common ground – the affinities – between us.
1. World Youth Day 2008
“Incredible, amazing, staggering, phenomenal, overwhelming”: that’s how one American bishop and his pilgrims described World Youth Day here in Sydney in 2008. Better than anyone expected, he said. A real experience of God’s Spirit in our lives. A real chance for young people to embrace their mission to give public testimony to their faith.
Now, World Youth Day was openly and unembarrassedly a Catholic event. Yet it could never have happened, and happened so successfully, had not the whole community pulled together. Here I think we encounter the upside of the Australian version of ‘secularity’. Let me explain ...
Around the world there are many views of the proper relationship between faiths and their agencies (such as faith schools, hospitals and welfare groups), and governments and their departments, as well as business, unions and other associations. Increasingly in Europe, the tendency is to say “ne’er the twain shall meet”, with governments and courts increasingly excluding people of faith and their leaders and associations from decision-making, service delivery, the public square. There is an intolerant strain of dogmatic secularism that would ban religious symbols such as Christmas cribs from schools, hospitals and public places and seek to rub out of the memory of law and policy religious notions about the sacredness of human life and love, the meaning and importance of marriage, and so on.
At the opposite extreme are countries where religious leaders of one particular faith and their associated organisations seek to dictate all the terms to government and society, including to people who do not share their faith, and to impose that faith through all organs of culture such as schools, universities, the media and entertainments.
Some other countries, such as the US, seem to be a strange mix of these two extremes, with lots of public religious rhetoric, especially around election time, as if religion was more or less compulsory, and lots of bans on religious things like prayers and religious symbols in public spaces.
Here in Australia we have a unique take on these things: we distinguish between church and state, between the public and the private realms, yet both realms regularly seek to cooperate and collaborate for the common good. Education is an obvious example of this. Many children are now educated in faith-based schools and the federal and state governments assist the parents and religious communities in funding this. This relieves the taxpayer of some of the burden of the education of a significant number of our children, while allowing those children to be educated in a faith environment that their parents want for them.
Another example of the way church and state collaborate in Australia was the 2008 World Youth Day. It was the biggest ever youth event in the history of our country and it brought together crowds in one place that were the biggest in the history of the Pacific. It was an extraordinary time for our city and country, for young people and for an old Pope. Many World Youth Day veterans say it was the best ever.
I think we did Australia proud. One of things that made me proudest was the way every sector of our community cooperated in its planning and delivery: not Catholics only, not Christians only, not the private sector or the non-profit sector only, but everyone. The young people were, for instance, offered special tours of several Mosques and the Jewish Museum. There were music and dance workshops involving Jewish, Muslim and Christian artists performing together. The Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW arranged Interfaith Prayer for Global Peace and Social Justice. The Islamic school in Greenacre hosted some 300 pilgrims on its premises. People of every religion and none funded government involvement such as policing, or joined the 8,000 volunteers, or welcomed the pilgrims into their homes, on public transport or on the streets of Sydney. So when the Pope met an imam, a rabbi and other community leaders and when the Prime Minister spoke of the crucial place of religion not just in our nation’s past but in its future, it was symbolic of a deeper cooperation that had already been going on for some time.
All that said something very powerful to our world that many of our visitors commented upon. It demonstrated a model of the relationship between faith and politics, between different faiths and different politics, that can teach the world something very important. Many said admiringly: that sort of cooperation in an event to praise God would not happen in my country ...
Lots of people came! There were 110,000 registered internationals, 113,000 registered locals and who-knows-how-many thousands of unregistered pilgrims and onlookers; meanwhile the rest of the nation and a billion more worldwide looked on in awe through the internet and television ... Whether it was at the liturgy at Barangaroo that opened the week, the concerts and youth festival activities, the daily catechesis by the bishops, the extraordinary Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) celebrated on the city streets, the Vigil of Light and Testimony at Randwick on the Saturday night or the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on the Sunday: there was so much that moved us. Some young people have said it was the greatest week of their lives. Some have said it changed them forever. One way or another World Youth Day has left its mark on many of us. It was undoubtedly the happiest and holiest week in the history of Sydney, with its streets rocking with the Spirit of God, the spirit of youth, the spirit of friendship.
One visiting bishop wrote to me about the number of Aussies he met on the street, on public transport, or in pubs – I’m not sure how many pubs this bishop visited – who, though not necessarily all people of faith, were “filled with wonder, curiosity and joy at how well the young people behaved and their enthusiasm for Jesus Christ.” Some told him it had raised deep questions in their hearts, questions they knew they would have to reflect upon once WYD was over. A few years later those deep questions still echo in our hearts. “What will you leave to the next generation?” the Pope challenged the young people. “Are you building your lives on firm foundations? Are you making space for the Spirit in a world that wants to forget God? How are you using the gifts you have been given? What legacy will you leave to young people yet to come? What difference will you make?”
Pope Benedict offered a vision of young people of sincere faith and upright living. He noted that “Among yourselves there is a readiness to take up the plentiful opportunities offered to you. Some of you excel in studies, sport, music, or dance and drama, others of you have a keen sense of social justice and ethics, and many of you take up service and voluntary work.” Whatever your particular temperament, gifts, experiences, aspirations, God calls you to be his witnesses in 21st Century Australia. That was Benedict’s message and many heeded it.
2. Issues Facing Young Adults in Australia
Such a message is preached, however, against the backdrop of 21st Century Australia. It is a place of wonders and opportunities, both natural and human. Yet not everything is ‘cool’ about our physical and social environments. Climate change is occurring in both those environments – more radically I suspect in the human environment than the physical – and we are far from sure what to do about either. In our social environment we encounter growing hostility to faith. “There is a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created,” Pope Benedict observed. “Examples abound, as you yourselves know: alcohol, drug abuse, violence and sexual degradation, often presented through television and the internet as entertainment …”. There is “something sinister,” the pope thought, in the way relativism separates freedom and tolerance from truth and moral absolutes. This leads “not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair.”
This is the downside of secularity, including the Australian version. Secularity often seeks to exclude God and the things of God and people of God from most of life and narrow ‘God business’ to a few special prayer times or festivals; it is hostile to religion whenever it seems to make a difference in people’s lives and that hostility to religion is omnipresent in organs of culture such as many sections of the Australian media – as was evident in the hostility of the media in the lead-up to WYD. This is a challenge for all people of faith: the pressure to check in your faith and ethics at the gate before entering the public square. Such secularity leaves young people confused about their religious identity, trying to negotiate attachment to aspects of the faith and morality of their ancestors and the compromises they are pressured to make to ‘fit in’ and ‘get ahead’ in a contemporary society. It leaves them disoriented as to their values, and especially as to whether there are any moral absolutes and if so what, and caught up in lifestyles that fail to honour God, human life, marriage and family, justice and more.
This is obvious in many areas of life today, such as attitudes to relationships, to material goods, to entertainments, to drugs, to violence and so on. Nowhere is it more evident than in the realm of sexual relationships. Before WYD I was asked by reporters whether we would be distributing condoms to the pilgrims. A generation ago no one would have taken such a bleak view of young people but now it was inconceivable to our secular reporters that young people could gather to praise God and enjoy each other’s company without fornicating! Despite real progress in our understanding of the dignity and rights of women and children, the importance of love and intimacy in marriage and family, and the positive values of sex, much of the cultural drift in this area in recent decades has been unhealthy and it is our young people who suffer most from the effects of this. Amongst the more problematical features of that cultural drift with which those who adhere to ‘the religions of the Book’ must now contend I would mention five.
Individualism privatises sexuality and sexual morality. Orientations and values are now seen as personal choices, made according to taste. Autonomy, understood as freedom from capital-N Nature — from God and His order in the cosmos, from the requirements of practical reason, from any limit to the human will — has also become in the post-modern era freedom from our own natures and anything that restricts freedom, including commitments like marriage or the demands of the common good, is seen on this account as the enemy of happiness.
The consumer mentality can be and has been extended to even the body, sexuality and children so that all these things are planned, quality-controlled, exchanged, even traded, with consent. Sex becomes a recreational activity and fertility a customer choice. The sexualisation of culture, the loss of any sense of modesty in advertising and public appearance, the earlier and earlier onset of sexual activity, the big porn industry, are all symptoms of this consumerising of sex. Like most consumer goods, we want sex often and enjoyably and with no strings attached. If you are not having it regularly and in various ways, you are presumed to be repressed or sad in some way. Australian philosopher Peter Singer has even advocated sex with animals, saying that this is the last sexual taboo to fall. The sex supermarket both over-estimates the importance of sex – as if no one could be happy who had not had sex in the last few hours – and trivialises or under-estimates its power – as if it were no more humanly significant than defecating.
A consequence of individualism and consumerism has been a reluctance to engage in self-sacrifice or commit to long-term obligations to God or others. Fewer and fewer people in the West are now marrying at all. They marry later and are much less likely to stay together. They have few if any children, and many of those children will grow up in fragmented or complicated families. All this presents a massive social challenge as well as a tragedy for many individuals, including people we all know and love. Sadly our culture tells young people to experiment with multiple partners and kinds of sex, supposedly ‘safely’ with a condom, to cohabit before marriage and to seek an elusive ‘compatibility’ before or instead of marriage. Having seen many relationships fail many young people are afraid to commit. Then they spend years in temporary commitments or non-commitments, learning how to have sexual relations or live together without giving themselves unconditionally to one another. In a world in which nothing is ‘for life’ any more – relationships, jobs, houses, ideals – we are habituating our next generation to live as if everything is temporary, conditional, revisable: a life without any life-long commitments.
2.4 No children
A related cultural shift has occurred with respect to children. Children are no longer presumed to be an ordinary part of coupling. ‘Safe sex’, in the modern world, is condomised sex, and that’s not just for HIV-AIDS prevention but also for baby prevention. The condomisation of sex and the demonisation of children tend to go hand in hand. In a contraceptive culture we are socialised not to love our bodies, life and children but rather to fear our fertility, to withhold it even from our spouses, to cauterise it temporarily or permanently. In the process our civilisation is becoming literally sterile.
2.5 Technologising sexuality
A fifth shift has been in the direction of technologising sexuality as the rest of human life. Technologies of fertility and anti-fertility, of child making and child unmaking, intrude into the most intimate areas of life. Years ago I heard it said that the two most common uses of the internet were for promoting and seeking religion and promoting and seeking pornography: the latter has, however, exploded at a much greater rate. The web is awash with porn and many young people are addicted from quite early. Social networking and other communications technologies present all sorts of good opportunities but also new challenges to faith and morals for our young adults.
3. The faith alternative
How might people of faith respond to such pressures upon our young people – and those not-so-young. The three ‘Abrahamic’ faiths share a view of the human person that speaks to these challenges and which, in my own tradition, has been especially well articulated as the ‘Theology of the Body’ of Pope John Paul II. He insisted on three simple points missed in our contemporary culture that I think are worth sharing with our young people: that we are our bodies; that we are what we do with our bodies; and that what we do with our bodies says something powerful. Let me explain.
3.1 We are our bodies
We are all somebody. We identify and know people by what they look and sound like. If someone punches me or kisses or tickles or has sex with me, they have doing this to ME, not just to my body. Sickness and health, hunger and satiation, location and movement, passions and perceptions – whatever happens to our bodies affects the whole person. Jews, Christians and Muslims insist that our bodies are not just extrinsic instruments, costumes, machines or prisons for some internal ‘real me’ to use. They are constitutive of our being and they reveal us to others. Of course there is a spiritual dimension to us also, but we are bodily beings.
Gender is one of those bodily givens. This is one of the insights of the Book of Genesis story of human origins: that God created ‘original man’ as man and woman, “male and female he created them”. There are, as it were, two different models, two different ways of being human, bodily creatures: male and female. Sex is not just an optional add-on to an otherwise asexual being, like air-conditioning in a car. Man and woman differ in the very depths of their being, not merely incidentally; and their maleness or femaleness is essential to their constitution and identity, permeating and colouring their activities and relationships.
The Genesis story offers another insight too: Adam, the man, is not happy alone and, contrary to Peter Singer’s wisdom, he finds no fitting helpmate amongst the animals. He is / we are made for love; it is our origin, vocation, destiny. Only the woman Eve satisfies Adam’s yearning: only she can adequately complement and partner him. Man and woman are so structured as to need each other and to find completion only through union with the other. Thus ‘male’ and ‘female’ can be understood only in terms of each other, the contrast and reciprocality of the pair. Because sexual union is so significantly different a way of touching for male and female, the very sexual act reveals something of the complementarity between the sexes. But there are many ways in which men and women differ.
Another point worth gleaning from the story of Eden: “God saw all he had made and indeed it was very good”. Adam and Eve are told by God to be fruitful and multiply, and so to engage physically; in this way they will take command of the earth, as its stewards and beneficiaries. Rather than fearing its power, its physicality, sex and the rest of the created order are to be enjoyed and celebrated.
3.2 We are what we do with our bodies
So, our Abrahamic faith traditions insist, as does sound philosophy, that we are our bodies. We are also what we do with our bodies. For if the body and those things which it signifies about our psychology and spirituality are largely givens, basic to our natures, there is much else about us that we make for ourselves. Our choices, including our sexual activity, our procreation and our fundamental commitments such as marriage and family, are self-creative. How? Because certain choices – promises, commitments – mean certain other choices follow logically. If I say “I marry you” then normally I will live with you afterwards, hopefully forever, and in certain ways. Choices also predispose us to further choices of the same or a similar sort or within the same horizons; they make certain things come more or less easily next time around; they make us into particular kinds of persons. Right choices make further right choices easier; wrong choices make further wrong choices more likely next time around. What we do, and the habits we get into, affect our identity, relationships and destiny. That is why we call some people life-savers and others murderers, some lovers and others rapists: they do certain things and those things affect who they are.
3.3 Sex says something powerful
What we do with our bodies also says something. Our bodies communicate things not just by speech but also by dress, eye contact, facial features, dance, mime, gesture. Sexual activity is also part of bodily self-expression: it tells people things, especially about ourselves. So our Holy Scriptures describe sex as language or knowledge: a revelation of the self, told in commitment and self-giving. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful form of human expression in which each explores the other emotionally and physically, forming a special bond of trust, wantedness and love. We can say with sex honestly, “I love you, I give you myself completely, as I am; I let you see me, as I am; I invite you to be part of me; I trust you not to hurt me”. Sex can unite in conversation, communicate feelings, hopes and promises, tell a love story, a life story.
But sex can also cloud thinking, become self-centred, exploitative, manipulative, humiliating, even violent. We can lie with sex, saying “I love you, I give you myself”, but with our fingers crossed, really meaning “just while it’s fun” or “just for tonight” or “as long as it gives me pleasure”. It is can be a specially powerful kind of lie, told with the whole person, physically and emotionally. Thus the sexual language can be an occasion for, a means to, and an expression of the most noble and other-directed side of our nature. On the other hand, it can be used to tell a lie, allowing or excusing using another person for our own pleasure.
Many people today think like Humpty-Dumpty who said in Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Many think the same way about sex; they imagine that it has no meaning in itself and that they can give it whatever meaning they choose. That is not the wisdom of the peoples of the Book.
3.4 What sex says
We know that sex has two inseparable dimensions or significances. First, bodily, sexual self-giving is ‘making love’ – something our culture vaguely remembers in the language it still uses for sex. It represents a choice to give and receive love through union with another person. It constitutes us as ‘lovers’ in our identity, relationships and destiny. This kind of union is a unique form of communication of love by touch. Two become one flesh by a sacred mathematics in which 1+1 = 1.
Secondly, bodily, sexual self-giving also represents a choice of the good of life, a purpose of giving and receiving life, to and from and through the other. Sex constitutes us not just as lovers but also as potential parents in our identity, relationships and destiny. Once again, it is a unique form of communication in this respect, the only mathematics by which 1+1 = 1, and then 1+1 = 3 and 4 and 5 and so on. The same act which unites people ‘as one flesh’ can also give life to a new human person.
The ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s began the disintegration of the sexual act, of the life-giving dimension from the love-giving dimension, which led us a generation later to hear voices for ‘recreational sex’, pet-sex, computer-sex and umpteen other ways of disintegrating life from love, and love from marriage. What our religious traditions offer our secular society is a nobler picture of the human being and his and her calling by God and the law of God for human life and love, as for other aspects of our existence. Our religious traditions encourage the reservation of sex to marriage and assist young people to live chastely until then and afterwards too.
Chastity or sexual liberates and integrates our sensuality, passions, emotions, affections and sexual desires with the rest of our life-story, so that our sexual life coheres with the rest of who we are and are called to be by God. It means we say what we mean and mean what we say with sex. And that’s good not just for Christians and Muslims but for every young person of whatever religious background.
4. Young people can make a difference
After World Youth Day the Police Commissioner said to me what a good thing it had been for the police to see so many young people being so good. Many police only relate to young people when they are in trouble and this can give them a rather pessimistic view of youth. WYD, the Commissioner said, had restored their confidence. I think good young adults can restore the confidence of all our community, by standing up for values greater than just acquiring lots of stuff and using it and discarding it – stuff that includes using and abusing other human beings.
It is to that beautiful yet confused world that all of us are sent. Reflecting on the dignity of every human being as an image of God, we must be especially concerned for God’s little ones: the poor, elderly, refugees, the victims and voiceless. That is another example of the common ground between our faiths. “How can it be,” Pope Benedict asked, that in societies with so many advantages still “domestic violence torments so many mothers and children? How can it be that the most wondrous and sacred human space – the womb – has become a place of unutterable violence?” Such ugliness on the moral landscape is no cause for despair, the Pope said, for deep down everyone craves for more and better. “Our world has grown weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses, and the pain of false promises. Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion.”
The young people at World Youth Day then brought their world to God. They returned to be recharged, redirected, re-inspired. Listening was followed by some real hearing; hearing, by some real learning, even conversion; learning by some doing; and action by a return to listening. But what was clear was that it was for something. We don’t do a World Youth Day or get involved in an organisation like Affinity because we like meetings: we gather for what comes afterwards, for what we’ll do tomorrow, together.
My encouragement to the young people after World Youth Day is extended to all of you here tonight, especially the young people: Don’t let your passion for God be quenched by a world that sells you short and tries to make you cynical or paralysed or lazy. The world says young people aren’t interested in God, in high ideals; that all they care about is comfort, security, getting ahead. Don’t you believe it! Young people in every generation can do great things! There are many ways to give ourselves in service to God and humanity. What matters is that they are full-on, not just a passing fad, a commitment for a week, but heart and soul, the gift of ourselves. Christianity and Islam are not comfie zone consumer ‘spiritualities’. They are about the whole of life. They call the young – and the old – to examine their consciences, face up to the failures, recommit to God and the good, be willing to sacrifice themselves, and keep trying to fulfil God’s law. There is much that people of faith can say to each other and to the world outside, much that we can do together and for the world outside. I thank you for this opportunity tonight to share some thoughts with you and I look forward to our conversation.God be praised! May God bless you!