When Pope Francis addressed the three million young Catholics gathered on Copacabana beach in celebration of World Youth Day on Saturday, there was no mention of abortion and no critique of gay marriage.
Moving away from the usual objects of Catholicism’s disapproval, he turned his critical eye towards the church itself. “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity,” he said. He criticised Christianity’s largest denomination in a way that his predecessors have not, describing the church as “too weak… too distant… too cold… too caught up with itself” and, vitally, “a prisoner of its own rigid formulas.” Pope Francis put religious doctrine to one side, instead approaching fundamental issues about the Church’s role in today’s world.
In Brazil, the Catholic Church has lost two million followers in the past ten years, while the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals exploded to 42 million in 2010 from 26 million in 2000. The rise of the evangelicals was evident in Brazil last week, with thousands of followers attending a rival celebration in Sao Paolo. Catholic numbers may be on the rise in Africa and Asia, but elsewhere the Church is struggling. Of the five million Catholics in the United Kingdom, only one million attend mass on a regular basis. The Vatican needs to take a new approach if it is to be preserved and Pope Francis might be just be the man for the job.
Raised in a Catholic family whose roots belong to the Maronites of northern Lebanon, religion was never an object of doubt in my childhood. From the primary school where I was educated by Irish nuns, to the all-girls convent that moulded me for the adult world, doubt was not encouraged. “Doubt” and “questioning” are not positive terms in Catholicism. They imply that the individual is spiritually lost, or falling into the clutches of agnosticism.
Instead, a rigid sense of order can be felt in the weekly sharing of communion and the pre-scheduled Sunday missal, the repetition of the Rosary, the stations of the cross and the 40 days of Lent. Even the majority of the hymns–sung at pre-ordained times during Sunday mass–date from the 16th century and are littered with terms such as ‘Thou art’ and ‘rejoice’ that do not speak to today’s youth.
Asked about my beliefs by friends, I am certainly not alone in wheeling out the “I’m Catholic, but…” response. I’m Catholic but I don’t go to church every Sunday. I’m Catholic but I believe women should be allowed to be priests. I’m Catholic but I disagree with the church’s emphasis on hierarchy. While my friends are more accepting, the older generations of my family call me a “pick-and-choose” Catholic who tailors the doctrine to suit their desires. But like any institution, the Catholic Church must adapt to survive. The Church must find a way of incorporating the youth into these traditions. Youth conferences, online forums and more interaction between bishops and parishioners are all ways in which we could be made to feel like our voices are heard by the Church’s decision-makers.
To the relief of young Catholics like myself, Pope Francis showed that he was aware of this problem at World Youth Day. “Perhaps the world seems to have made the church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions,” he said, giving voice to a criticism that may have urged millions of Brazilian Catholics to turn to the more interactive and socially inclusive evangelicalism. By merely lifting the taboo on “questions,” Pope Francis opened up the floor to people like me, whose education—centred on rationality and critical thinking—is incompatible with blind discipleship.
Though Francis is far from radical, sticking by Catholic doctrine on issues such as gay marriage and euthanasia, he has stepped out of the Papacy’s red shoes and taken the focus off lofty notions such as ‘grace’, ‘worship’ and ‘humility’, setting earthly goals for his young listeners. He made mention to the recent riots in Brazil protesting the sacrifice of public services for expensive events such as the World Cup and encouraged the fiery youths to act as “revolutionaries” and to make a “mess” by spreading the gospel in the streets. In crossing the bridge between politics and the Catholic Church, he has shown young people how they can incorporate Catholic values into their daily lives, making them feel like “being a good Catholic” is not a barrier to modern ambitions, but rather an opportunity to take faith into their own hands and lead the Church into the 21st century.