In 2005 I had the chance to visit World Youth Day (WYD) in Cologne, Germany, as a participant and mentor of the Jesuit Magis program. It was an enriching experience, to say the least. I met some good souls there…

Today, August 15th 2011, the youth from all over the world is once again invited to celebrate LIFE in a gathering that will last for a couple of days, this time in Madrid, Spain. “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith…” (cf. Col.2:7) has become the theme phrase of this event.

It’s always been a challenge to have faith. Youngsters are called to keep hope alive for a globalized world which faces many problems (ranging from the issue of increased violence against our natural resources to violence amongst ourselves as human beings). WYD symbolically takes the shape of a little pilgrimage, as it is especially designed for adolescents on the brink of making some fundamental choices in life. Will they be able to make authentic choices for themselves, keeping faith in their own unique gifts, walk the path ahead of them? Or will they base their choices on fear and insecurity, imitating others in a rivaling quest for status, power and wealth – wasting their god-given talents and losing themselves in the process? With these youngsters, we are challenged to listen to others that ‘show us the way’ to freedom and love. One of those others is Jesus of Nazareth, who is called ‘the Christ’ because of his liberating preoccupation and association with victims: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?” (Luke 9:24-25).

West Side Story (the well known American musical on a script by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) surely portrays some of the dangers our youth is confronted with today: the temptation to seek recognition from peers in a violent way on the streets (because security appears to be insufficient in traditional surroundings like family), the pressure to stop dreaming of a better future in an increasingly cynical world, and the increasing opposition between representatives of ‘the law’ and ever more frustrated youngsters (just think of the recent upheaval in London).

West Side Story in fact is a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the upper west side of New York City. The rivaling families of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the house of Montague and the house of Capulet, are replaced in the musical by two competing teenage street gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white working-class Jets. Sharks and Jets are tied to each other by what René Girard calls ‘mimetic rivalry’: the violence they inflict on each other is always an imitation (mimesis) of the violence by ‘the other party’. In other words, the two groups are guided by revengefulness. As in the story of Romeo and Juliet, the feud (and the play) eventually ends at the expense of victims (and this rings a bell for ‘Girardians’, of course…). The house of Montague and the house of Capulet make peace when they find their children, the lovers Romeo and Juliet, dead in each other’s arms. In West Side Story the Sharks and the Jets quit fighting when Tony, belonging to the Jets, is killed. His body is held by Maria, his lover who belongs to the Sharks and who calls for an end to the violence… In this sense, she lives up to the life-bearing properties ascribed to a biblical counterpart of hers with the same name, Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In a love song for Maria, early on in the play, the character of Tony makes reference to ‘the Holy Mother’, whom Christians traditionally pray to a lot, by uttering the following words:

“Maria! Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”

For your listening pleasure I’ve added the song in a special performance by Les Contre-Ténors (The Countertenors), Andreas Scholl, Dominique Visse and Pascal Bertin. These three men are among the top male altos in the world. Listen by clicking here (you won’t be disappointed)


In a world consumed by rivalry and violence, the character of Maria represents today’s youth who faces the challenge of finding new ways to mould the future. Perhaps not coincidentally she carries the name of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary is the biblical figure who gives birth to a ‘Child’ incarnating the hope for a future where people can be vulnerable as children towards each other. Would that be possible, a world where we are no longer guided by the temptation to assert ourselves in exploiting the other’s so-called weaknesses?

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary, the traditional story of the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her life. According to this story, the apostle Thomas was the only witness of the assumption of Mary. During the event Thomas is said to have received Mary’s girdle. In this way, Mary helps him to convince the other apostles, who were skeptical at first, that his account of Mary’s assumption is indeed truthful. So, in the Assumption story Mary becomes a cornerstone of faith, transforming the once doubtful apostle Thomas who couldn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection (see John 20) in a person who enables others to ‘have faith’.

By imitating biblical and other stories of faith in the Christian tradition, WYD 2011 aims to support and inspire youngsters in their quest for a peaceful future that’s not built by sacrificing other human beings. The story of Christ indeed ultimately is the story of a Victim who ‘returns’ to ‘turn the other cheek’, so the age-old mechanism of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence might end before it only provisionally comes to a halt at the expense of more victims.

To end this post, I’d like to dedicate a prayer to the young Maria’s of West Side and other dangerous places, to these ‘mothers of tomorrow’ who carry life and hope within them. They will have to guide us with their girdles, like some Ariadne, out of the labyrinths of our trials and tribulations. I chose a prayer from the famous Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a 14th century collection of songs and prayers, kept in the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria of Montserrat (near Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain). The songs are especially fit for pilgrims, even the contemporary ones at WYD. This becomes clear by what the anonymous compiler himself writes on why he made the manuscript:

Quia interdum peregrini quando vigilant in ecclesia Beate Marie de Monte Serrato volunt cantare et trepudiare, et etiam in platea de die, et ibi non debeant nisi honestas ac devotas cantilenas cantare, idcirco superius et inferius alique sunt scripte. Et de hoc uti debent honeste et parce, ne perturbent perseverantes in orationibus et devotis contemplationibus.


“Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.”

Maybe the prayer Mariam Matrem Virginem can bring pilgrims together, even closing the gap between those belonging to ‘the house of Barcelona’ and the traditional rivals of ‘the house of Madrid’. It definitely wants to convey the spirit behind the ‘Black Madonna’, a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary (probably from the late 12th century). In 1522, Ignatius of Loyola laid down his arms for her and began a new life, turning away from his ‘violent ways’. As is known, he eventually became the founder of the Jesuit order… So, for those of you in search of magis (‘more’), a new life of faith, hope and life giving grace, I added the Mariam Matrem Virginem. To see the score, click here (pdf). To read the lyrics with translation, click here (pdf). To listen to the song in a performance by Hespèrion XXI under the direction of Jordi Savall, click the following


In the book Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (Continuum, London, New York, 2007), René Girard talks about popular culture and discusses the power of mass media. His approach is very nuanced, as he distinguishes between positive and negative aspects of these phenomena. He even dares to compare television series Seinfeld to the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Girard develops his thoughts in a conversation with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. The seventh chapter, Modernity, Postmodernity and Beyond, reads the following (p.249-250):

Guy Debord wrote that ‘the spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion’ brought down to earth. Could we consider the expansion of the mass-media system, and the ideological use of it, as a ‘kathechetic’ instrument as well?

Of course, because it is based on a false form of transcendence, and therefore it has a containing power, but it is an unstable one. The conformism and the ethical agnosticism induced by media such as television could also produce forms of mimetic polarization at the mass level, making people more prone to be swayed by mimetic dynamics, inducing the much-feared populism in Western democracies.

Do you agree, however, that movies, TV and advertising draw heavily on mimetic principle, therefore increasing our awareness on this score?

Yes and no, because the majority of Hollywood or TV productions are very much based on the false romantic notion of the autonomy of the individual and the authenticity of his/her own desire. Of course there are exceptions, like the popular sit-com Seinfeld, which uses mimetic mechanisms constantly and depicts its characters as puppets of mimetic desire. I do not like the fact that Seinfeld constantly makes fun of high culture, which is nothing but mimetic snobbery, but it is a very clever and powerful show. It is also the only show which can afford to make fun of political correctness and can talk about important current phenomena such as the anorexia and bulimia epidemic, which clearly have strong mimetic components. From a moral point of view, it is a hellish description of our contemporary world, but at the same time, it shows a tremendous amount of talent and there are powerful insights regarding our mimetic situations.

Seinfeld is a show that gets closer to the mimetic mechanism than most, and indeed is also hugely successful. How do you explain that?

In order to be successful an artist must come as close as he can to some important social truth without inciting painful self-criticism in the spectators. This is what this show did. People do not have to understand fully in order to appreciate. They must not understand. They identify themselves with what these characters do because they do it too. They recognize something that is very common and very true, but they cannot define it. Probably the contemporaries of Shakespeare appreciated his portrayal of human relations in the same way we enjoy Seinfeld, without really understanding his perspicaciousness regarding mimetic interaction. I must say that there is more social reality in Seinfeld than in most academic sociology.”

Maybe a small example can lift a tip of the veil. I chose a short excerpt from Seinfeld’s episode 88 (season 6, episode 2, The Big Salad). Jerry Seinfeld is dating a nice lady. However, when he finds out his annoying neighbor Newman is her former lover, his face darkens… One doesn’t have to watch the whole episode to know what will happen next. Indeed, Jerry eventually breaks up with his date, imitating what Newman did and ‘ending it’. The reason Jerry’s desire for his girlfriend diminishes precisely lies in the often imitative or, as Girard would call it, ‘mimetic’ nature of desire. Jerry just doesn’t desire his date directly all the way, but he is – like all of us – sometimes heavily influenced by certain models who point out what he should or should not desire. In this case, Newman turns out to be a model who negatively influences Jerry’s desire…

This scene is fun, because it’s all too recognizable and it mirrors some aspects of our tragic comic behavior – good, refined humor as it should be!

Click to watch: