Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Work hard, Pray Hard: A World Youth Day Experience

By Isaac Withers

I hadn’t gone to a wedding in four years, but last summer, a fair few people I knew (and a sister of mine) got engaged, and I found myself at four weddings (no funeral yet…). Anyway, quickly, a trend emerged.

Every priest that preached at these weddings, made the same, fundamental point. ‘Love is not a feeling, it’s an action.’ And then they would specify, it’s the action of self-sacrifice. When you think your spouse is completely wrong, sacrifice the victory in that argument, stuff like that. Another said, it has to be waking up every day, and thinking, ‘how do I make this person happy, before my own happiness?’ Love, they said, had to become actions if it was to thrive.

Which can all sound a bit hippy I guess. I mean, there’s a John Mayer song called ‘Love is a Verb’ and that guy's no model of fidelity. But it did strike something in me, I had a realisation that if love was an action, then it was also a choice. That every day, my parents had been choosing to love, and that I had grown up in that. Years and years of choosing the hard path, in sickness, in health, in poverty, good times and bad, ‘til death. Immense stuff. An action, so a choice, and hard work.

Anyway, the day after my sister's wedding, a few of us headed straight to London, to hop onto a coach, and 25 ours later we were in Krakow for World Youth Day.

It was my first time, but I’d heard so many stories about it that I had big expectations. And it was incredible. The scale was just immense, 2.5 million all rallying to the same creed is amazing. Everyone had such passion for where they had come from, and for the Church we all belonged too. But because of this scale perhaps, it took me a while to find my own personal journey. Really, it was the Mercy Night led by LifeTeen that really began a thread of prayer for me. There were 18,000 people inside this huge arena, and 2,000 outside, for praise and worship. Just listening to a crowd that large singing ‘holy spirit you’re welcome here’ was something else. It was bonkers.

But it was what was said that moved me. Bishop Robert Baron ditched his planned speech to talk about forgiveness and martyrdom in the wake of the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel in France. Which meant he began by talking about the cross, homing onto a question I had been looking for an answer to for a while. ‘Why was the cross necessary?’ I had heard all the usual answers, but it was a real point of difficulty for me. He didn’t disappoint.

‘Why couldn’t God just have pronounced a word of forgiveness from Heaven and gotten this whole thing over with? …  God had to go into our sin so as to fix it from within. Go back to those Passion narratives we read every Easter. What do we see but all forms of human dysfunction? We see stupidity; we see hatred; we see violence; we see cruelty; we see institutional injustice; we see all of human dysfunction on display. Where did Jesus go? Where did he go? He went into it, or better – in the language of the Bible – he took all of it upon himself and paid the price. Forgiveness, everybody, is hard work. Forgiveness means entering into dysfunction, pain and sin, and addressing it.’

I can’t really fully tell you how hooked I was on what this guy was saying. He had just pinned down such a problem for me and answered it was a passion. And again, I realised, it was taking the abstract, the common words ‘I forgive you’, much like the words ‘I love you’, and saying no, it’s not words, it’s a live action. It’s entering into the ugliness of broken human relationships. And it’s a choice. It’s St. John Paul II visiting his would-be assassin in prison over and over again. It’s harder than words. Action, choice, hard work.

And this literal faith is something that Pope Francis has put at the heart of his Papacy, When he spoke to the crowds, he spoke as he always does, in really practical terms.

‘My friends, Jesus is the Lord of risk, of the eternal “more”… Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths…To take the path of the “craziness” of our God, who teaches us to encounter him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the friend in trouble, the prisoner, the refugee and the migrant, and our neighbours who feel abandoned... In all the settings in which you find yourselves’.

                As soon as he called Jesus the ‘Lord of the risk’, I knew we were about to hear something iconic. He attacked comfort. He said the word sofa eleven times. It was a blisteringly anti sofa speech. Furniture stocks must have taken a dive the next day.

                And again, he took the challenge of discipleship, and made it real, updating the scripture a little, ‘the friend in trouble, the prisoner, the refugee and the migrant’. And as funny as the sofa bashing was, it spoke to me. It spoke to the hours I spend on Facebook, the idea of all things ‘#unilife’. How it’s easy to spend more time alone with my laptop in a day than with any one person: life, work, events – all through the same portal, and from a sofa.

And Papa Francesco was having none of it. He was calling us to the choice. To the action of getting up, setting out. And like love and forgiveness, this would mean entering into hard work. It was being ready, ‘In all the settings in which you find yourselves’. To be disciples.

Now, I’ve heard a lot of talks sending people out from a spiritual experience, down from the mountain, but Pope Francis went big. He asked us to be historic.

‘For the fact is, unless you offer the best of yourselves, the world will never be different… Today’s world demands that you be a protagonist of history because life is always beautiful when we choose to live it fully, when we choose to leave a mark.’


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