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Young Catholics from U.S. say crisis makes them strong

With 55,000 Catholic youth from the United States in Toronto along with 125 American bishops, including the beleaguered Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, it was inevitable that echoes of the sex abuse crisis would be heard at World Youth Day.

The surprise is that to listen to many of the American youth, the scandals have not rocked their faith -- in fact, they’ve strengthened it. Many said in interviews with NCR that they feel like members of a family under attack, and they’re coming to its defense.

“I think it’s made us stronger. All these people are gathering here in spite of everything that’s happened, and we’re still going strong,” said Jimmy Flanigan, 16, of Oregon.

Several participants said they have faced lots of hostile questions about the Catholic church since the scandals broke, causing them to reflect on what they believe.

“When something like that happens, you have to think more and take everything more seriously,” said Claire Rowland, 16, of Maine. “It’s forced me to take a stand.”

Talk about the scandals, with its potential to distract attention from the official themes of World Youth Day, obviously irritates organizers.

“I’ve never seen a media more preoccupied with sex in my life,” said Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica. “It’s a lot of nonsense. I have listened very carefully to the young people. I don’t hear denial, but a great desire to move on.” Indeed, Law attended the gathering with 600 young people from his archdiocese.

Rosica said the crowds suggest that Catholic young people have not lost faith.

“They vote with their feet,” he said.

The issue came up as the young people mingled with church leaders, especially in the catechetical sessions held Tuesday to Thursday mornings. On July 24, for example, Carla Horsley of Sioux City, Iowa, asked Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, how to respond when non-Catholics ask about the scandals.

“We respond with charity, but also with pride,” Gregory said.

“A lot of times these questions are not really questions, but insults and attacks,” he said, before a crowd of several hundred youth. “We have to answer with charity and politeness.”

Organizers, however, refused a request from an organization of Canadian sex abuse survivors for a meeting with the pope.

Earlier, Gregory seemed to allude to the scandals in his catechetical address.

“You, my young friends, are not the remnants of a vanishing community of faith, but the horizon of a better, healthier, more dedicated church,” Gregory said.

In an interview with NCR, Gregory said he wasn’t surprised that these young Catholics have stuck by the church.

“It seems to me that young people in today’s world have lived with so many disappointments, so many sources of cynicism and despair, that they’ve come to realize that their hope cannot rest on institutional or societal realities,” Gregory said.

“Their hope is grounded in Christ. I don’t think they are unaware, but they’ve come to develop an inner strength that is not going to be thwarted by the way we adults seem to drop the ball consistently and often.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002