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Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

I just spent a couple of days at World Youth Day in Kraków, courtesy of the Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend (BDKJ), an umbrella organization of German Catholic youth organizations. The last time I attended WYD was 2002 in Toronto, so I was very curious to see what has changed since then and specifically if there was any discernable “Francis effect” among the youth.

Of course, returning to Kraków meant recalling the legacy of Pope St. John Paul II and the origins of WYD and the JPII generation. I wanted to highlight not only my personal connection to the saint but also what he had to teach us about the role of Catholics in political and economic life. As one of my priest friends put it, I had a baptismal duty to do so.

To my pleasant surprise, many of the Germans who attended my talk, which included a showing of the Poverty Cure trailer, seemed to agree that good intentions are not enough, especially when it comes to helping the poor. Who knows, some of them may even have been inspired enough to start a business and create jobs for others, the only real solution in the fight against poverty.

On the other hand, I was not so encouraged when I heard that, unlike others at WYD, these “progressive” Germans did not have catechesis in the morning because, in the words of one, they “shouldn’t be told what to believe.” A very strange, but perhaps increasingly common, understanding of what it means to be Catholic, I thought, where concerns for social justice replace the contents of the faith. It would seem to be a recipe for political disillusionment as well as personal burn-out once you realize that the world rarely cooperates with your grandiose plans.

This glaring neglect of catechetical formation may explain why so many German Catholics are confused about Church teaching and why so many German-speaking bishops in particular are pushing to relax its more demanding aspects. It’s probably why Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is apparently not very popular in his native land. And it is a big problem not only for the Church in Germany but for the nation as a whole.

These progressive Germans were virtually the only group of young people I saw who were not carrying around their country’s flag. The rest of Kraków was full of singing, joyful youth waving their flags and taking pictures with as people from as many other countries as they could. Of course, there are deep and searing historical reasons why Germans are so wary of nationalism, but it still seems as if these young people who had nothing to do with past atrocities are missing something important in their lives; they almost appear too sophisticated for their own good. (In fact, they told me they were quite disappointed the Polish organizers of WYD rejected the Holocaust exhibition the young Germans had put together.)

Given the mounting refugee crisis and continuing Islamist terrorist attacks, Europeans are desperately searching for an identity that allows them to be both proud of their heritage and welcoming to outsiders. Can anything but Christianity fill this growing void? The young people in Kraków seem to know better than their political rulers that the Christian nations of Europe manage to strike the right balance of universalism and particularism that JPII spoke of at the United Nations in 1995.

Perhaps the young are naïve or ignorant of Europe’s bloody past; perhaps they represent the last gasps of a dying concept in a post-national, post-Christian era; perhaps they will eventually be drowned out by the more virulent, xenophobic forms of nationalism expressed by ascendant far-right parties. All I know is that the WYD experience deeply impressed a secular-minded German diplomat who told me she has been telling her colleagues who left the city how much infectious joy and hope for the future they are missing. 

Seeing and hearing for oneself is the best antidote for European despair. The great enthusiasm and energy the young have for the pope, no matter who he is, show that they are searching not only for a good time or comradery, but maybe even for the truth about God and man. A truth that was proclaimed by the son of a carpenter in Israel 2,000 years ago but still has the power and beauty to move millions of souls at a time. Much hard work and, yes, formation will be required to take advantage of this spectacular moment, but it may well be the only thing that can save Europe from itself.

Boże, pobłogosław Papieża. Boże, pobłogosław Kraków!

Kishore Jayabalan

Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.