My Mennonite childhood with its traditions and community gave me a fairly insulated faith world. I think of it as a value-filled echo chamber of familiar voices, habits and doctrines that describe all I need to know about how people understand God.
World Youth Day 2002 was one of the biggest breakthroughs into the resonance of my echo chamber. The media coverage, the palpable and respectful excitement, thousands of youth arriving in Toronto from all parts of the world, caught my attention. I had never seen anything like this kind of love for a global church family in my traditions. I had been immersed in press coverage for a World Conference of Mennonites a few years earlier, but what I was witnessing as a media consumer peeking in on World Youth Day and its variety of Catholic followers was something very different.
I watched the celebrations and listened to testimonies issued on the grass of parks and diocese sidewalks, and I sensed the worship under way. I knew something life-changing was occurring for the participants, for the Roman Catholic Church, and possibly for many others as well.
Many months after the fuss was all over, I sought out Father Thomas Rosica, the National Director of Toronto World Youth Day, for a visit. I wanted to know how that event had happened, what was the meaning of the faith I saw expressed by so many youth, and what I could learn for my own leadership from his lessons of engaging an obvious game changer for Christian witness.
As we visited, he told me a story of getting a mysterious phone call after World Youth Day from Gaetano Gagliano, an 86-year-old business icon who invited Father Tom to a boardroom table of what I would describe in Protestant terms as "wealthy saints." There, Father Tom was directed to begin Mr. Gagliano's dream of taking the passion for God evidenced at World Youth Day into a TV network. The Catholic founder of St. Joseph Media, Mr. Gagliano is well-known for his sage advice to "put God in first place" and apparently had influence with the Pope, and Father Tom was being reassigned into television.
These are the casual ways an outsider like myself describes the intrigue of relationships that seem to make things happen in Roman Catholicism. But that story was also the beginning of a warm welcome from Father Tom for my own TV vision as it came to be embraced by the new Salt + Light Television network and,later, Boston Catholic TV. An ecumenical experiment of sorts that has stretched us both, Catholics giving free airtime to a Protestant friend, sharing camera or studio needs. It's one of the fruits of the welcoming ambiance of World Youth Day that has deeply enriched my personal faith and public witness.
I thought of that this past spring when I wrestled over how to respond to a "Spoken Word" social media phenomenon where an evangelical pastor, Jefferson Bethke, received over 20 million hits for his video poem called "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus." The Catholic response was also an Internet phenomenon. A contrasting video poem called "Why I love Religion, and Love Jesus" by Father Claude Burns went for a different approach. The priest chides his evangelical counterpart for criticizing Catholic structure by saying "You clearly have a heart for Jesus but it's fuelling atheistic opinions." He goes on in defence of the worldwide good that comes from the teachings and structure of Catholicism, concluding, "So as for religion, I love it. I have one because Jesus rose from the dead and won. I believe when Jesus said it is finished, His religion had just begun."
I smile at this dust-up between two similar faiths, and know that because of the friendships World Youth Day encouraged, I now can navigate the controversy, putting these opposing artists together to make a great discussion for a TV audience. There's something about breaking into each other's echo chamber that is good for us.