The queue reached halfway down Ambrosden Avenue. There seemed to be no one remotely near my age. Westminster Cathedral Hall on a Saturday morning, packed with young people attending a conference on the Theology of the Body.
The mood was upbeat, and the pace was good. I had gone out of curiosity – and also because after reading and praising a couple of books by the speaker, Christopher West, I was told I was quite wrong and that he was dreadful. I wanted to check for myself.
Although the vast majority of people in the hall were young, there was a good smattering of slightly older people (although still much younger than me!) including a large batch of cheery nuns and a few clergy.
Things began with a sweeping, upbeat exploration of beauty – a discussion of the human sense of longing for what is glorious and true, and homing in on a scene from The Shawshank Redemption in which the hero plays, throughout the prison, a recording of a magnificent piece of Mozart, transforming for a moment everything and everyone.
The essential message of West’s introduction to St John Paul’s theology of love, marriage, and family is that this theology is about man’s innate longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. He sees the Church’s message as centred on authenticity and truth – and hence as something that can be understood by examining what we really are as human beings created in the image of God and destined for glory.
The truth about human beings, he says, cannot be understood except through the Incarnation – God coming to share fully in our humanity, becoming one of us, dwelling among us.
“The language of the Jewish faith is Hebrew, and language of Islam is Arabic – but the language of Christianity is the human body, because the Word took human flesh and became one of us,” West told his audience. “No other religion has ever made that claim. This is what transforms humans’ relationship with God – and with one another.”
It’s powerful stuff. To the student of Karol Wojtyla’s writings, this is his Love and Responsibility writ large. Human love is a participation in the great love that God has for us. True human love is “the gift of self”, an authentic exchange that must be grounded in truth. The wrongfulness of contraception is inherent in the very nature of human sexuality as given to us by God.
West teaches the John Paul message with reference to songs, poetry and music that reflect the longing for God that is present, sometimes achingly so, in modern and post-modern culture. The talks were woven with Scriptural and catechetical material, some also highlighted on a screen and so on. It’s lively though not slick, and it has an interconnected feel – and includes considerable audience involvement, especially along the lines of “How many here liked this song? Did you agree with what it seems to be saying?”
West’s style can make him vulnerable – he talks quickly, sometimes much too quickly, and the emphasis on lofty ideals can be risky. I can see exactly why one older critic wrote: “Why doesn’t he just say that Catholics should know the rules on sex, and stick to them”. The problem with that approach is that if we fix on the idea of “rules”, then one option is to assume that rules can and should be changed as appropriate. God’s plan for the human race is not about “rules” in the way that most come to understand that word in modern culture, but about the essential nature of human love and human needs and human reality…all created by God, who from “the beginning” knew and planned that he would come to share in our human lives too.
My verdict on the day: it can all be a bit exhausting – lots of enthusiasm, lots of information, and an assumption that this style of hugely vibrant communication is always the best way of getting ideas across. It’s certainly the reverse of the formal lecture or the cloying 1970s style of let’s-get-round-into-a-circle-and-share-thoughts. It is part of the big-crowd culture that gives us World Youth Day, massed silent vigils of the Blessed Sacrament, vast outdoor Masses and processions. But I rather think that our Medieval ancestors might identify quite well with it – this is not the formality of people in 19th-century pews but of surging crowds along the lanes to Walsingham or Canterbury, the preacher of the ferverino, the singer of minstrel songs.
When West, or others of his style, speak, for example, about confession and the transforming power of discovering – or rediscovering – God’s mercy, it’s not in the style of a formal preacher or instructor in the formalities of the Faith, but rather with the joyful conviction of one who has truly experienced something that he wants to share. There is something of the enthusiasm of someone who, with a degree of urgency, says “You simply must – hurry! – come and see this glorious sunset/ splash in this fantastic river/ listen to these fabulous bells!”.
There is no doubt that, since the 1990s, two generations of Catholics have been voicing with increasing emphasis a desire to focus on the greatness of the truth that the Church offers. They want dignified liturgy, glorious music, honest teaching – and a degree of drama and passion that challenges and uplifts them. Media commentators were astonished by the crowd kneeling on the ground in silent, candle-glittering awe before the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Park when Benedict XVI came to visit. I suspect some of our Bishops were slightly astonished too. There is similar astonishment when young Catholics affirm “Yes. This is truth and it is glorious, and I want to live this” about the Church’s message on love and sex and marriage.
This is 2018 not 1968 and in between we got John Paul II in 1978. One of the great things he gave us is the Theology of the Body. Christopher West teaches it well, and London benefited. We need more of this.