Robert Ward

Toronto Star, July 21, 2002
World Youth Day interview with Bill Taylor

Bob Ward doesn’t believe in God.

Whether God believes in Bob Ward remains to be seen.

Ward doesn’t rule out an eventual deathbed conversion to Christianity for himself, “but I don’t expect it to happen”…

Key Porter has just published his book Virgin Trails, about his pilgrimage to Europe in search of new insights into the Virgin Mary, “the most beloved figure in Catholic theology.” Now he’s turning his eyes to World Youth Day and the hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims flooding into Toronto from all over the world to be in the presence, if only from a distance, of Pope John Paul II.

Harldy the most obvious pattern of behaviour for someone who disavows religion so strongly. But Ward, 39, sees himself as being in an ideal position for unbiased commentary – a man who knows the turf but has no axe to grind, no interest in converting anyone to or from Catholicism…

He [is] fascinated by the links between religion and popular culture and especially by World Youth Day, which he calls “a moveable pilgrimage”…

“When you think of a pilgrimage, you think of people going somewhere,” he explains, “Lourdes, Mecca, the Ganges… even Graceland, if you’re devoted to Elvis. These are places something miraculous happened. Pilgrims want that grace, that magic to rub off on them… Place is clearly important, but John Paul II has instituted a pilgrimage that moves every couple of years. From Rome to Czestochowa in Poland, Santiago de Compostela, Denver, Manila, Paris, Rome again. It’s hopped all over the place.

“Some places were already pilgrimage centres, Rome, Santiago… but Toronto? Denver? People won’t be going home with holy water from Toronto. Once the show has packed up, no pilgrim has any reason to come to Toronto. So this is an interesting innovation.”

With, Ward says, arguments for and against.

“It’s valid – in theory anyway, within Christianity – because God came to earth as a man who moved around the world and brought his religion to the world. Though there are fixed places, such as Jerusalem, that are very important, it’s not so much that a place or an object is sacred but that a gathering in Christ’s name is sacred. The stations of the cross is a route that exists in Jerusalem. But symbolically it can be transferred anywhere in the world. If we can transplant that, why shouldn’t we have a pilgrimage here?”

And the counter-argument?

“Commercialization,” says Ward. “Sensationalizing it, modelling it almost consciously on the Olympics. The cross carried for thousands of kilometres like the Olympic flame. Taking the cross to the top of the CN Tower… is that making the modern world more holy or trivializing the cross? But Catholics are debating this and that’s healthy”…
The dramatic re-enactment Friday of the stations of the cross – symbolizing Christ’s journey from being condemned by the Romans to his Crucifixion and entombment – will, he says, “be maybe very beautiful, maybe just very strange. But unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Toronto.” The fourteen stations of the cross will extend from Nathan Phillips Square to the ROM with fifty actors. And the crowd will follow it on giant screens. Christ on the Jumbotron. “My immediate reaction was cynicism. I’ve had to fight that. The immediate reaction of tens of millions of other people is anything but cynical.”

Still, he’s troubled by the atmosphere of rock n roll extravaganza surrounding the world’s pilgrimage to Toronto, especially in the poster advertising the event.

“There’s one… the first dozen times I saw it, I thought it was for a rock festival: ‘Huge lines, sweltering heat. You’ll remember every blessed moment’”…

During his own pilgrimages to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela, he says, he never felt any call to turn to God.

“Oh, no, not at all. If it had happened it would have been interesting. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. I don’t want to be a dogmatic atheist.”