London In The Aftermath of World Youth Day

I have always loved rain, and after the terrific heat of Madrid I am hugely enjoying, from the comfort of my study, the drenching rainstorm that is clattering down on my London suburb as I write this.

But London is bleak in many ways – Britain is still reeling from the ghastly riots that took place a couple of weeks ago. It is true that teams of enthusiastic volunteers swiftly gathered to clear up the mess, that shops that were destroyed have re-opened again (including the famous Reeves of Croydon’s Reeves Corner, a landmark for over a century), and that there has been some wise and common-sense talk about the need for moral values and for a restoration of family life with fatherhood and commitment emphasised. But all this somehow only serves to emphasise just how sad things are.

After a glorious week at World Youth Day, with young people who were kindly, humourous, capable, courteous, and brimming with joy, it is rather dreary to be here where the talk is of problems and worries and social breakdown.

The exam results for school-leavers, on which their entry to universities depends, have been published, and as usual there are pictures of girls hugging each other and celebrating their “A” grades and exulting over university prospects. Note that I say “girls”. Of course there are lots of boys with excellent grades, but overall girls are doing much better and it’s clear that at present boys are seriously disadvantaged. It is partly the way the coursework has to be studied and the way subjects are presented and examinations are set. So much is somehow done with a “feminine” sort of mindset. It is frustrating and difficult for some boys, especially those of only average ability, to find that they cannot tune in to what is needed and that their skills and strengths are somehow untapped.

There has been a considerable amount of discussion too, from educationalists, including head teachers of many years’ experience, about the way in which the exam system forces everyone into a narrow tube, excluding anything not strictly needed for an examination and reducing young people’s opportunities to study, for example, great literature and the resonances of history. We hear of exam-based lessons on Shakespeare that insist on the pupils just looking at one scene from a play and learning some relevant quotations so that they can tackle an essay on it, and then announcing that they’ve “done” Hamlet or Macbeth or whatever it is…

Meanwhile the rain, and the exam results, are a reminder that summer is definitely passing and that Autumn plans will soon be coming to fruition. For your London correspondent, this means the publication (in October) of a book for children on Blessed John Paul the Great. Just before I left for Madrid, I spent a lovely afternoon looking over the illustrations with the (very talented) artist, checking details such as the vestments and the Episcopal ring in various pictures, and JP2’s stole on that memorable day when he came out on to the balcony of St Peter’s and spoke about the Cardinals having chosen a new Bishop of Rome “from a far country”.

And there are all sorts of other events happening. In September, there will be a great celebratory Mass at Westminster Cathedral on the first anniversary of the wonderful visit of Pope Benedict XVI to our country – that will bring back many, many happy memories and with a great sense of heartfelt thanksgiving and joy. Other events that month include a special celebration at Maryvale, the Catholic study centre based in Blessed John Henry Newman’s former home just outside Birmingham, to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Brigettine Order – the Brigettines run the accommodation and hospitality at Maryvale and are much loved by all the students (including your correspondent). And then, as September ends, there’s another big event at Westminster when Cardinal Levada comes from Rome to attend a reception to support the recently-launched Friends of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Part of me is still nostalgic for Madrid and the wonderful gathering that finished a few days ago. The scorching sun will have been burning down today on a great dusty airfield that rang to the sound of our singing last weekend. The Metro stations will no longer have young people cheering and dancing and shouting “Viva el Papa!” There will no longer be any groups swapping flags and badges and jokes and banter on street corners. But World Youth Day was such an outpouring of friendship and joy and faith and such a genuine expression of a genuine united encounter with God that its fruits will be seen again and again and again. Here in London, it’s only too clear that vibrant and authentic Christianity is what humanity needs.