The vigil included a figure dressed as St. Faustina, observing as it were the need for mercy in the world, and God’s outpouring of it in various circumstances. This “presence” of St. Faustina led one to consider that the simple sister, who had such little success in spreading the devotion during her life, must marvel from Heaven to see the largest assembly of young people anywhere on the planet this year gathered to pray the chaplet before an immense image of the Merciful Jesus.
The vigils, which have always been multifaceted affairs, part rally and part pontifical teaching, are better now that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have added eucharistic adoration to the program. Indeed, the most memorable moment of the 2005 WYD in Cologne was the immense and vast silence of the prayer before the monstrance.
That being said, the address of Pope Francis resonated with me, for he inveighed against a culture of idle recreation, a “couch potato” culture, which leads to “the paralysis that comes from confusing happiness with a sofa.” In other words, to think that in order to be happy all we need is a good sofa. A sofa that makes us feel comfortable, calm, safe. A sofa that promises us hours of comfort so we can escape to the world of video games and spend all kinds of time in front of a computer screen. A sofa that keeps us safe from any kind of pain and fear. A sofa that allows us to stay home without needing to work at, or worry about, anything. “‘Sofa-happiness’! That is probably the most harmful and insidious form of paralysis, which can cause the greatest harm to young people.”
It was, to be sure, rather incongruous to address that reprimand to a vast group which had just marched 10 km or more to the swampy “Field of Mercy,” but one has to make allowances for the homiletic style of the great corrector — Francis always begins by pointing out those who are failing in one way or another. Yet I welcomed the message, hoping that my students might pay me more heed when I inveigh — as I frequently do — against video games, which suck hours of productive activity out of the lives of young people, especially young men. The Holy Father was absolutely right to identify the dangers of our recreational culture, in which vast amounts of time are devoted to largely passive amusements and superficial self-absorption. And Pope Francis was blunt about what was at stake.
“When we opt for ease and convenience, for confusing happiness with consumption, then we end up paying a high price indeed: we lose our freedom,” Francis said. “We are not free to leave a mark. We lose our freedom. This is the high price we pay.”
Freedom can be suppressed, a lesson learned painfully in Poland under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. But it can also be abandoned, traded in for comfort because freedom involves risk and hard work. Yet freedom is the path of discipleship.
“My friends, Jesus is the Lord of risk, He is the Lord of the eternal ‘more,’ ” the Holy Father continued. “Jesus is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease. Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. To blaze trails that open up new horizons capable of spreading joy, the joy that is born of God’s love and wells up in your hearts with every act of mercy.”
Inviting young people to be “protagonists of history,” Pope Francis simply and strongly refuted the caricature of him as someone looking to water down the life of faith, as doing precisely what St. Paul warned against, namely emptying the Cross of Christ of its power. St. Paul may not have seen a sofa, but he would have agreed with Pope Francis that it is a threat to the freedom for which Christ has set us free.
In Pope Francis’ address, the young people who frequent Newman House at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. — many of whom were with me in Kraków — would have heard echoes of so many of the themes we stress.
St. John Paul telling young people at Częstochowa in 1983 that “you must demand much of yourselves, even if others do not demand it of you.”
Pope Benedict telling them that “the world offers you comfort — but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati writing to his friend that “to live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth — that is not living, but existing.”
Blessed John Henry Newman praying that “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.”
There is work to be done, a great mission to be accomplished, an adventure in freedom to be had. There are no adventures to be had on the couch.
(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)