Catholic and cool in Sydney

Photo: Reuters World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney was a triumph for the Catholic Church and its 81-year-old head, Pope Benedict XVI. About 400,000 people attended a final Mass on Sunday (July 20), briefly making the pilgrims’ destination bigger than the nation’s capital, Canberra. Some baffled journalists described it as a Catholic Woodstock – the 1969 orgy of, drugs and sex and rock ‘n roll which became an iconic moment for baby-boomers. But 40 years later, the world has moved in an unexpected direction. WYD, the biggest youth event in history, is an anti-Woodstock, a repudiation of the materialism and secularism of the baby-boomers.

After years of being booed offstage, the curtains have again opened and God is being greeted with tumultuous applause. As a young woman commenting the event on Australian TV said, with unabashed confidence, it used not to be “trendy” to be a Catholic in Sydney, but now “it’s become cool again”. No wonder the news that Madrid will host WYD 2011 was greeted with such jubilation.

The response of young people was stunning. About 125,000 pilgrims made their way from across the world, despite increased air fares and the immense distance which isolates Europe and the Americas from Australia. After months of scrimping and saving many from overseas would have spent 20 to 30 hours in the air to reach Sydney. And despite negative reports in the media and lukewarm support from many Catholic schools, they were joined by another 100,000 Australian pilgrims. On the last day, when Benedict celebrated a Mass at Randwick Race Course, thousands more joined them.

The Vatican and Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell had planned this event as a catechesis, a teachable moment, a festival of Catholic culture, teaching and prayer. For pilgrims who came early, dioceses around the country organised talks on controversial topics like Catholic views on sexuality, bioethics, faith and reason. During the week immediately before there were addresses from Catholic bishops from around the globe.

In fact, one of the striking features of Sydney’s World Youth Day was how naturally Gen Y slotted into traditional aspects of Catholic devotion and doctrine which the Woodstock generation spurned as fossilised relics of the pre-Vatican II era. Not so, said today’s youth.

Entering a new era

During the days leading up to the climactic Mass, young people were queuing up for the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, and to spend time in prayer in churches before the Eucharist. Thousands walked 9 kilometres to Randwick across Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge– closed to traffic for only the third time in its history – often singing hymns or praying the Rosary if they were not kicking a football or skylarking. Some carried huge banners saying, “We love our German Shepherd”. A Saturday evening vigil was followed by vast slumber party on the site where Mass was to be celebrated the next day. Confessions continued throughout the night and even at three in the morning, a tent with the Blessed Sacrament exposed was full of young people praying.

And even the most churlish journalists had to admit that the pilgrims were cheerful, high-spirited and ordinary, not the scowling killjoy zealots some had expected. A group calling itself the No to Pope Coalition – a collection of drag queens, homosexuals, atheists and (believe it or not) lesbian Raelians – showered passing pilgrims with condoms as they streamed over the Harbour Bridge. But the stunt provoked only laughter and pained perplexity. "They've all got their own opinions," remarked an 18-year-old New Zealand girl. "We've got our own beliefs and we're not going to change it because of them."

Pope Benedict clearly enjoyed the celebration. Nowadays he responds more spontaneously to the enthusiasm and affection of crowds. But although he received a pop star’s welcome, he had came as Pope “to the end of the world” determined to reenergise the Church in Australia and to urge young people to commit themselves to God.

Four themes of Benedict’s catechesis

The intriguing thing about Benedict is that a man of his age, shy, modest and uncharismatic, convinces by virtue of his perceptiveness and rigour and clarity. His addresses at World Youth Day were pitched at a high level. They were intellectual, without rhetorical flourishes, and went straight to the heart of the conflict between religion and secular culture. Four messages stood out.

Speaking to all Australians, the Pope lamented that “In so many of our societies, side by side with material prosperity, a spiritual desert is spreading: an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair.” He constantly attributed this to the scourge of relativism, the belief that there is no truth. Instead, people are offered mere “experiences” with no standard by which to judge them.

To all believers, the Pope brought encouragement to continue to fight to keep religion in the public square. In one of his most interesting addresses, to representatives of the non-Christian religions, he countered the assertion that religion and violence are inextricably mixed.

A yearning for the transcendent leads people to realise that fulfilment does not consist in selfishness. “Rather, it leads us to meet the needs of others and to search for concrete ways to contribute to the common good. Religions have a special role in this regard, for they teach people that authentic service requires sacrifice and self-discipline, which in turn must be cultivated through self-denial, temperance and a moderate use of the world’s goods. In this way, men and women are led to regard the environment as a marvel to be pondered and respected rather than a commodity for mere consumption. It is incumbent upon religious people to demonstrate that it is possible to find joy in living simply and modestly, generously sharing one’s surplus with those suffering from want.”

To Catholics, the Pope emphasised unity. His address to the evening vigil was a stunning overview of the theology of unity. Although it may have gone over the head of many of the sleepy pilgrims waving candles in the darkness, he gave a masterful sketch of Augustine’s struggle to grasp the meaning of the Trinity, the central doctrine of Christianity. And he used this to make a pointed appeal for unity within the Church itself, urging Catholics to reject the temptation to set their local community against the “so-called institutional Church”.

“For it is precisely the comprehensiveness, the vast vision, of our faith – solid yet open, consistent yet dynamic, true yet constantly growing in insight – that we can offer our world.”

And to young people, over and over again, he emphasised their responsibility to pass on their faith to others. He called upon them to be prophets of a new society: “a new age in which love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty. A new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships.”

Enormous challenges ahead

The task of rebuilding the Catholic Church, in Australia as elsewhere, is an enormous challenge. Almost overshadowing the exuberant welcome given to the Pope in the local media were protests by victims of clergy sex abuse. It is claimed that more than 100 Catholic clergy have been jailed for this in recent years. There were insistent calls for an apology – and the Pope apologised during a Mass with the bishops, seminarians and young religious: “These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation. They have caused great pain and have damaged the Church’s witness... Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice”.

Despite the shadows, Benedict’s rapturous reception in Sydney shows that Christianity is far from dead, or even dormant. Flags from dozens of countries were waving in the stiff breeze which blew up as World Youth Day drew to a close. Amongst them was the red star of the People’s Republic of China. Even there, in an officially Communist regime, the Pope has enthusiasts. Over the past five years a bitter secularism has sought to push religion into a closet. Books by proselytising atheists have captured the imagination of the media. Now, after a week of joyful, unashamed religious sentiment Down Under, everyone knows that there is a viable alternative. God is back in the game.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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