Will It Turn the Tide Down Under?

Assessing the impact of World Youth Day in Sydney.

With 125,000 registered overseas pilgrims and around half a million present at the final Mass celebrated by the Holy Father, World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney was an occasion to rival Sydney’s Olympic Games in 2000. But when the excitement has subsided, what will really count as WYD’s long-term impact on a Church in spiritual decline within a culture of hedonism and secularism?

A new Pentecost was called for, and WYD’s theme—“You Will Receive Power When the Holy Spirit Has Come Upon You; and You Will Be My Witnesses”— was timely.

Indeed, after almost 25 years of WYDs, Church leaders remain confident that such events, like a powerful charge of spiritual electricity, can reignite the faith.

Benedict XVI, prior to his arrival in Sydney, acknowledged the need for something dramatic to turn the tide: “How much our world needs a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit! There are still many who have not heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, while many others, for whatever reason, have not recognized in this Good News the saving truth that alone can satisfy the deepest longings of their hearts…. My prayer is that the hearts of the young people who gather in Sydney for the celebration of World Youth Day will truly find rest in the Lord, and that they will be filled with joy and fervor for spreading the Good News among their friends, their families, and all whom they meet.”

He thought the formula for such youth gatherings still valid while expressing confidence that the event would help young Catholics to live a mature faith and act as evangelists, taking up the duty of Christians to spread the faith. The Gospel message, he said, would always fi nd an audience, even in a thoroughly secularized modern society such as Australia, since “God is in the human heart and can never disappear.”

As for the likely impact of World Youth Day in Sydney, as with previous WYDs, no doubt any non-practicing participants were touched by the faith of other young Catholics, while those practicing—often isolated in schools and workplaces—were encouraged by the many around them sharing their convictions. Religion teachers in Catholic schools have had a golden opportunity to engage the interest of their students in religious issues via the daily media coverage, and many nonpracticing Catholics—otherwise not reached by their local parishes or the Church’s own media—were reminded about their faith on free-to-air TV.

As past World Youth Days have shown, many young people contemplating a priestly or religious vocation have been prompted by the WYD experience to take the next step.

There were many moments of grace, both for the participants and the millions watching television and reading the newspapers, with some people inspired to re-engage with their faith in parishes and schools.


Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, president of the Australian episcopal conference, said at the welcoming ceremony for Benedict XVI in Barangaroo, Sydney that he was optimistic the Pope’s visit would bring lasting blessings on the youth and Church in Australia and the world, as he believed had occurred after previous papal visits elsewhere.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, as he prepared to depart with Austrian pilgrims, was hopeful that WYD would leave a deep impression on Europe: “I have been driven to go to Australia by the experience of the latest WYD of Cologne, where it was unbelievably exciting for me to be able to celebrate and experience faith with so many other young people. And to meet the Pope, of course…. These days can have an impact on anyone who takes part. Since World Youth Days have existed since 1984, many things have happened as a result of the Youth Days. We have found great guidance for faith, for life. I think the experience of these WYDs has been something extremely important for a whole generation of young Catholics.”

Prior to WYD, Father Anthony Denton, director of vocations in Melbourne, Australia’s largest diocese, recalled his positive impressions of attending three WYDs and expressed confi dence in the likely impact of Sydney’s WYD.

“Recently, a World Youth Day information night was held for seminarians at Corpus Christi College, the regional seminary for Victoria and Tasmania. The question was posed: how many of the 50 or so seminarians would attribute some degree of infl uence on their vocation to involvement in World Youth Day? About one-third of those present raised their hands. There can be no doubt that the experience of World Youth Day has had a major impact on those who have attended these huge gatherings of the world’s young Catholics over the past 20 years.”

Father Denton added: “So why has World Youth Day been so successful in revitalizing the faith of young Catholics? In a headline in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano earlier in the year Pope Benedict’s address to pilgrims was summarized as follows: ‘Meeting Jesus: one is never the same.’ I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that for many people it was at World Youth Day that they encountered Jesus for the first time. Or at least that it was during some part of World Youth Day that they realized the full signifi cance of that encounter with the person of Christ.”

He pointed to the sacrament of penance as “probably the most surprising aspect of any WYD,” a sacrament “largely abandoned by their elders and unfamiliar to their peers has been attended by literally tens of thousands of young Catholics during WYD week.” Father Denton concluded, “The reason why this celebration of the Catholic faith by young people has been so successful in igniting the faith of millions of them is that it is an expression of authentic Catholicism. Young people discover that there is such a thing as truth; that orthodoxy is not a faction. It is, in the words of C.S. Lewis, mere Christianity.”

By “faction,” Father Denton explained that orthodox Catholicism is not some fringe part of the Church to be equated with the liberal Catholicism of dissenters, but is simply the mainstream faith of the universal Church.

Apart from such personal observations and impressions, it would be enlightening if research were undertaken into the long-term spiritual dividends for those cities and nations where WYDs have taken place, e.g., increases in conversions, baptisms, vocations, Mass attendance, Catholic marriages, and use of the sacrament of penance.

In the lead-up to WYD and during its six days, most of the Australian media provided positive and balanced coverage. Given the Church’s own modest media resources, this coverage was priceless in presenting Catholicism in a positive light on TV and radio and in the newspapers.

The presence of thousands of enthusiastic young Catholics from around the world not only highlighted the Church’s universality but was a refreshing contrast to the usual negative images of dissent or scandal that tend to interest the secular media. Admittedly the liberal sections of the media—the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and the Fairfax newspapers— did their utmost to sour proceedings in the lead-up to the papal visit, with criticisms of the costs involved to taxpayers and attempts to tarnish Sydney Cardinal George Pell’s reputation by dredging up an old abuse case just prior to the start of World Youth Day.


The need for the stimulus of a WYD to address the crisis of faith in Australia was well appreciated by both Benedict XVI and Cardinal Pell. Three years earlier Benedict had remarked that Catholicism in Australia, as in Western Europe, was barely alive. But at the start of his visit, he said he was optimistic about the future prospects.

“Now at this historical moment we begin to see that we need God,” he remarked. “Australia in its historical configuration is part of the Western world. The West over the past 50 years has seen great success, economic and technological success. But religion has been relegated” to the margins. However, he added, God “is in the hearts of human beings and can never disappear.”

The preface of the missal prepared for WYD also noted the challenge of secularization: “While the Christian faith has an honored place and history in the life of modern Australia, increasing secularization of society gives an even more urgent thrust to the need for young people to be witnesses to the truth of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit. As the World Youth Day prayer for Sydney implores, we pray that this time may herald a new Pentecost for the young people of the world, resulting in ‘conversion of life, a deeper faith, and love for all.’”

While the Central Statistical Offi ce of the Church announced recently that Catholicism continues to be the largest religion in Australia, with 27.56 percent of the total population, its numbers have failed to grow in proportion to the country’s total population. Of more concern, a national survey conducted in May 2006 revealed that the total number of people at Mass on a typical weekend was just 13.8 percent of the census Catholic population, a further decline from 2001’s count of 15 percent, with the rate lowest among the younger age categories.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who greeted Benedict warmly on his arrival, is a practicing Christian, but behind the positive public relations images the hard reality remains that aggressive secularism has all but eliminated religion from the public square. A majority may still profess to be Christian in the census but their actual influence on legislation and judicial decisions affecting marriage, family, and bioethical questions remains negligible, despite the best efforts of a few.

Pressures continue to legitimize or further liberalize such moral aberrations as abortion, euthanasia, samesex “marriage,” and embryonic stem cell experimentation, with the mass media, academia, judiciary, and state and federal governments dominated by advocates of anti-life, anti-Christian measures.

In a real sense, the late 1960s cultural revolutionaries have been shaping the contemporary culture in Australia as in most of the Western world. Where, one might ask, are the future Catholic and Christian leaders capable of withstanding the onslaught while promoting and defending a new culture of life? Or is the Brave New World inevitable?

The failure of Australia’s Catholic schools, parishes, and families to raise a significant number of believing, practicing young adults has contributed to a faith and leadership vacuum. No longer, it seems, is there a “Catholic vote” on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, while most Catholic politicians are indistinguishable from their secularist confreres on life and family issues.

WYD aside, Australia’s large unchurched majority acquire their rare snippets of religious information from an ill-informed or prejudiced mass media or via travesties like The Da Vinci Code. While Catholic dissenters are treated with respect, those daring to publicly espouse Christian principles are likely to be attacked or ridiculed.


In an environment so hostile to the religiously committed, the week-long WYD program proved to be a muchneeded spiritual tonic. Following an opening Mass celebrated by Cardinal Pell at Barangaroo on July 15, three days of catechesis sessions were provided at over 250 locations. A spectacular re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross took place on Friday afternoon at eye-catching locations, including St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Opera House, Art Gallery, The Domain, and Darling Harbor.

An audience of half a billion tuned in to watch the Stations, which involved around 80 young performers, while over 270,000 international and local spectators made their way to points around the city to watch the Stations live and on big-screen televisions. The first station on the steps of St. Mary’s Cathedral was attended by Pope Benedict XVI, who led the prayer.

On Saturday, July 19, a pilgrimage walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge to Randwick Racecourse was followed there by an evening vigil with the Pope. Throughout the week, a well-attended vocations expo explored the call to holiness in the states of marriage, priesthood, religious and consecrated life, and various lay vocations through an exhibition and the witness of vocations expo speakers.

Benedict XVI, after meeting with representatives of other faiths July 18, celebrated Mass the following day for 3,400 of Australia’s bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians, and religious at St. Mary’s Cathedral. In his homily the Pope referred again to the challenge of a secular Australia, where “in the name of human freedom and autonomy, God’s name is passed over in silence, religion is reduced to private devotion, and faith is shunned in the public square.” This tempts many “to make the life of faith a matter of mere sentiment, thus blunting its power to inspire a consistent vision of the world and a rigorous dialogue with the many other visions competing for the minds and hearts of our contemporaries.”

He expressed the hope that “this celebration, in the presence of the successor of Peter, may be a moment of rededication and renewal for the whole Church in Australia.”

Earlier, during his fl ight to Sydney, Benedict had responded to a media question about clerical sex abuse indicating he would deliver the same message he had given during his April trip to the United States. He said it was “essential for the Church to reconcile, to prevent, to help, and also to see the guilt.”

During his homily in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Benedict took the opportunity to offer his much-anticipated apology for the scandal of clerical sex abuses.

“Here,” he said, “I would like to pause to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious in this country. Indeed, I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured, and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering.”

“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. I ask all of you to support and assist your bishops, and to work together with them in combating this evil.”

“Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice,” the Pope said. “It is an urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people.”

Along with Benedict’s earlier meeting with four victims of sexual abuse by clergy, his apology was well received and given worldwide media coverage, as had occurred during his US visit. On July 20, the final Mass at Randwick Racecourse was the largest gathering of people in the history of Australia, with 26 cardinals, 420 bishops, and thousands of priests and religious present.

In his homily, Benedict called on young Catholics to “help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected, and cherished—not rejected as a threat and destroyed”—and to help build “a future of hope for all humanity.”


The task ahead for the religiously committed is challenging, the Pope said; “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. How many of our contemporaries have built broken and empty cisterns (cf. Jer. 2:13) in a desperate search for meaning—the ultimate meaning that only love can give?”

Father Mark Podesta, a WYD 08 spokesman, described the week in Sydney as “a magnifi cent eye-opener to how faith and God are alive among young people and the Church in Australia. Never before have Australia and Sydney seen such a mass gathering of happy and exuberant young people—it completely transformed our city!”

Cardinal Pell has been well aware of the need to capitalize on the opportunities opened up by such a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

The Archdiocese of Sydney Pastoral Plan, 2008-2111, “Starting Afresh with Christ”—due for implementation this year and affecting every area of church life—is designed in part to capture the spiritual momentum offered by WYD. In addition, the Australian episcopal conference’s National Office for Evangelization has developed a resource packet called “Rewired” that aims to build on the spiritual electricity of World Youth Day by helping young people connect more deeply with the Church.

Marita Winters, director of the office and a three-time veteran of World Youth Day, said “we all want to be able to tap into that level of excitement and raised spiritual awareness that is so often a feature of World Youth Day, and to translate it into a deep and lasting connection with the life of the Church.”

The program, she said, was for young people “deeply immersed in their faith as well as those who haven’t had much to do with the Church at all” and “an opportunity for young people in a parish, school, or on a university campus to invite their peers to look at their faith and tradition in a welcoming environment. It is also a useful tool for a parish that wants to start a youth group.”

With the Church’s brief moment in the spotlight now a receding memory, the hard work of building on the manyspiritual benefits generated by WYD in Sydney begins. If this task is successful, we may see the 40-year pattern of decline in Australian Catholicism finally reversed.

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About Michael Gilchrist 0 Articles
Michael Gilchrist is editor of the Australian religious monthly, AD2000, and author of several books on Australian Catholicism.