This time last week some 4,000 Catholic youth were embracing their faith at Mini World Youth Day (MWYD) in Durban, an event which received great reviews from various quarters. For Tim Harris, of the Catholic Leadership Academy, it was by far the “best image that I have ever seen of the Southern African Church”. He reflects on the event that both surprised and challenged him.
More than simply arriving for my slot as guest speaker, I chose to attend three days of the Mini World Youth Day to develop my perspective on the young South African Church. I was curious. Having attended the last four World Youth Days, I was inquisitive to see how we as a local Church might fair, as an indication of our ability to host a global World Youth Day.
On entering the Durban Exhibition Centre, I was met by the profound buzz of a happy crowd. I did not see static factions of self-conscious youths glued to their little screens and there was no sense of reluctance, often synonymous with Catholic gatherings. No, the image in front of me was by far the best image that I have ever seen of the Southern African Church.
The people, mostly between 20 and 30 years old were open, engaging and expressive – clearly comfortable. It was a special energy, something that secular gatherings seldom muster.
As I drifted through the shifting masses I studied the colour and the texture that surrounded me. Each person, it seemed, was proudly showcasing his or her traditional regalia. As a white South African male who struggles deeply with how to participate in our national dialogue, I felt awed by my surroundings. Eye contact, smiles, handshakes and embraces – more than separated, I felt connected. Perhaps it was the transcendent Catholic connection to every soul in this vast venue. Whatever it was, it was paradise.
After I had given my input alongside the Archbishop of Cape Town and some highly esteemed young faithful, we were allotted sixty minutes to field questions from the pilgrims. The issues raised were varied and challenging. The depth of thought behind the questions, and the genuine pursuit of truth they alluded to encouraged me. These young people were authentically searching, far from antagonistic or apathetic.
Interestingly, it was not the youth that needed working on. Often, when young people gather, misbehaviour and ill-interest can occur. This was not my experience at all. Clearly the experience I had of the event was overwhelmingly positive. Instead, it was some of the leadership that was hard to engage with.
I had especially hoped to introduce myself personally to some key individuals during my time at MWYD. While I did meet with one obliging bishop, the other two I had reached out to prior to the event remained out of reach despite my attempts to access them. Similarly two other individuals with notable influence on the youth structures in our conference remained holed up.
I hope that the reason they were unavailable was simply busyness and exhaustion, and not an indication that there is no room to engage with the powers that be. This would be tragic, especially after sowing so many seeds of faith and passion through MWYD.
Can South Africa pull off a global World Youth Day? Based on what I saw, there are some encouraging signs – especially from the youth. If Church leadership from all corners of the conference step up and participate the Church at large stands to benefit. May this local event happens again, and again. SA.