Every day of this year’s triennial week-long Catholic festival in Madrid, Anna Halpine reports from the world’s largest gathering of young people.
Stalin famously asked how many divisions had the Pope, and John Paul II was understood to have given his answer when 10 million Poles (one third of the country) came out to see him on his first visit to Poland as Pope. The Polish papal visit in 1979 led to the creation of Solidarity, a forest of awakened consciences, and the collapse of Communism.
Today in Madrid, Pope Benedict seemed to give his own answer to this question. Arriving to join in the World Youth Day festivities, the Pope was greeted by throngs of young people filling the star-shaped avenues that jutted out from the Central square in which he greeted the pilgrims. Initial reports estimate that 2 million pilgrims waited in the blazing Madrid sun to greet the Pope, and the new chant for WYD Spain went rippling through the crowd: “We are the young people of the Pope” (Es la es, la juventud el Papa!). With this chant, with the throngs in the street, and with Pope Benedict’s obviously delighted smile at the jubilant and noisy crowd in front of him, Stalin’s question once again came to mind.
Stalin and the regime he managed are dead. John Paul’s answer to Stalin’s challenge eventually overthrew the powerful, tyrannical, military regime Stalin had worked to create. John Paul’s divisions did this by standing in solidarity with each other and by uniting millions of ordinary individuals through extraordinary commitments to live each day in the truth about the human person.
Benedict’s divisions, though living in a different time, face a similar task. Pope Benedict has been strong in condemning relativism, and identifying the intellectual currents in vogue that rob the human person of his dignity and mount an attack on the human person in a variety of ways. The young people in Madrid know this, and listened eagerly to each word the Pope addressed to them today. They understand that the task before their generation is the task entrusted to each generation — that of defending the dignity of the human person, and insisting on the freedoms necessary to doing so.
Among the many pilgrims at World Youth Day are thousands of members of the World Youth Alliance. These young people have joined together in solidarity in order to affirm the dignity of each and every person from conception to natural death. They understand that each of their voices counts towards providing a great yes to life and the human person. These divisions of Pope Benedict also understand the great threat facing the human person and human freedom found in the worldview of moral relativism — a worldview which opens the door to a variety of attacks on each person ranging from abortion at the beginning of life to euthanasia at its end. If relativism is to prevail no objective value to life can be held; without this recognition of the immense dignity of each and every human life, the lives of the most vulnerable — as our Western culture sadly demonstrates — live only through the whim or desire of others. This threat to free and just societies is so great that Pope Benedict has called it the “dictatorship of relativism”, highlighting the totalitarian nature of an ideology that is disconnected from the reality of the human person, and which operates based on the ideas of those in power, both in academic circles and in politics and policy.
The World Youth Alliance embraces young people from over 160 countries. They stand as a witness to life, working at the international institutions of the UN and the EU, as well as in the humble grassroots families and schools in which its members are found throughout the world. These World Youth Alliance members — many of them also pilgrims here in Madrid — demonstrate the nature and generosity of the millions of young people who have come to Madrid. The young people who are flocking to the Pope give us hope that the “dictatorship” of relativism, like other ideologies that have denied the dignity of the person and the grandeur of the human experience, will be defeated by the heroes that this generation of generous young people will provide.
Anna Halpine is the founder of World Youth Alliance.