Nowhere is the miraculous ability of World Youth Day to highlight and encourage Catholic revival in seemingly hopelessly post-Christian societies more evident than in the Australian pilgrims who have come to Krakow. Long a local Church in the doldrums, the Australian Church today is making a comeback.
Today’s Australian society is as secularized as that in most of the world’s other rich countries. According to the most recent 2011 census, 61.1% of Australians declared themselves as Christians (25.3% of whom were Catholics), while 22.3% registered as “nones.” Most Australians who do call themselves Christians aren’t very devout: according to a 2013 survey by McCrindle (Australia’s equivalent of Gallup or Pew) just 1.8 million Australians are weekly churchgoers out of a population of more than 24 million. Abortion laws vary from state to state, but they are generally quite permissive. Although same-sex marriage has not been legalized there yet, polls show that Australians support such legislation by a ratio of three to one.
The Catholic Church in Australia hasn’t been immune to these secularizing forces. Since the 1960s, vocations and Mass attendance have been in free fall. According to the Church’s very own statistics, the proportion of Australian Catholics attending Mass regularly in 2011 was just 12.2%, down from 30% in 1978 and 63% in 1947. In recent years, the Catholic Church has received a lot of negative press in Australia, as cases of sexual misconduct by priests have attracted wide media coverage. Cardinal George Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney and now Pope Francis’ Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, has had to testify in front of Australian courts because of allegations that he mishandled such cases. Although not a shred of evidence that he did so has surfaced, the cardinal has still been the victim of a nasty witch-hunt in the secularist media.
Given this overall situation, one would think that now is a very depressing time to be a Catholic in Australia, and that it will be a matter of time before Christianity dies out there, just like it did in North Africa in the Middle Ages. However, talking to Australian pilgrims in Krakow one gets the opposite impression. Having done so, I have no doubts that we are witnessing the dawn of a serious revival of the faith in Australia.
As in other editions of World Youth Day, pilgrims carry their national flags around the streets. I was unsurprised to see many Polish, Italian, Brazilian, Philippine, American, Portuguese, and Spanish flags, but the number of Australian ones was overwhelming. In total, more than 3,000 Australian pilgrims have registered for this year’s World Youth Day, although in all likelihood there are many more (most pilgrims did not register).
As I got on a crowded bus this morning, I struck up a conversation with the priest standing next to me. “Australian?” I asked, recognizing his accent. Indeed, Father John is Aussie. I asked him about the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney. “Initially, a lot of people were protesting that the secular government was giving money for a Catholic gathering. There was a lot of grumbling,” he said. I was not surprised; in addition to the unfavorable situation mentioned above, I remember reading about tasteless protests against World Youth Day held by thousands of LGBT and secularist activists, who provoked pilgrims by handing them condoms.
“However, people’s hearts were changed. They saw hundreds of thousands of young people praying and being joyful on the streets of Sydney, and a lot of the hostility faded,” Father John adds. When I asked him if World Youth Day 2008 created a favorable atmosphere for the Church in Australia, he said that it changed the public’s perception of Catholicism by showing that the Church has a young, dynamic, energetic face.
A couple hours later, I ran into a group of Australian pilgrims, university (“uni”) students from Sydney. They quickly won me over with their zealous devotion to their faith, and they gave me an adorable little plush koala that’s supposed to clasp onto my lapel (but he keeps falling off). When I told them that perhaps Cardinal Pell might be the next pope, they didn’t think so, although one added that: “It’s all up to the will of God.” How many 21-year-olds think in such terms, even here in the supposedly more religious United States?
I asked Myrna if World Youth Day 2008 changed the Australian Church for the better. “Definitely!” she says. “It encouraged us to go out there in public and be happy in sharing our faith.” “Not many of my friends at uni are Catholics. World Youth Day created a new atmosphere in which everyone from different parts of the world was praying together, and it made me feel part of a bigger movement,” says Kristie.
I was most surprised, however, when these girls pointed to another source of renewal: the lasting legacy of Pope St. John Paul II. What astonished me was that these pilgrims, in their early twenties, were inspired by someone who died when they were small children. It would seem that the Polish pope would be a historical figure they know mostly from textbooks. “It would have been so awesome to meet JP2. He was so great and he inspired World Youth Day. He showed people Christ,” says Jemille, in case anyone would have doubts as to who her hero is. Jemille also credits LifeTeen, a Catholic youth movement originating in the United States but active in her country, with rekindling young Australians’ faith.
Undoubtedly, part of the upswing in Australian Catholicism has to do with immigration. Like in the United States, the Church in Australia is an immigrant Church; once Italians, Poles, and Irish built Australian parishes, and today Asians have taken on a similar role. Of the group of Australian girls I met, most were of Indonesian, Filipino, and Japanese background. But when I asked them if this was typical of Australian Catholicism, they answered that while there are many Asian-Australian Catholics, young white, “native” Australians are the majority of the pilgrims in Krakow.
The experiences of Father John and the Sydney girls aren’t just their subjective experiences. Hard statistical data confirm that, indeed, there is a Catholic revival underway in Australia. Currently, there are about 150 men studying to be priests in Australia; this falls short of the pre-Vatican II days, but that number has been inching up. The situation in Melbourne is especially encouraging: there, 60 men are in seminary, the highest number in more than 40 years. Meanwhile, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney recently said that before World Youth Day 2008 there were about 30-40 youth groups in his diocese; now, that number has grown to more than 200.
Don’t these optimistic numbers contradict the generally bleak outlook for Australia’s religious culture to which Catholics have not been immune? After all, as we saw above, Catholic attendance Down Under has plummeted. An answer to this seeming paradox can be found in the view that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had of the Church in the West. Benedict, himself coming from highly secularized Germany, knew that, however wonderful that would be, a return to Medieval Christendom would be unlikely in the West. He understood that the number of the faithful would inevitably be smaller than in the past. However, he believed that Christians in post-Christian societies have the opportunity to create a smaller, but more zealous community whose members imitate Christ more faithfully than before.
It seems to me that Australia is doing a terrific job of following Benedict XVI’s vision of the Church. Catholics in other rich, secularized societies should take a tip from their Australian co-religionists, who are leading the way in renewing the Church.
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