PHOTO BY FIONA BASILE COURTESY OF DAYS IN THE DIOCESES MELBOURNEVolume 19, Issue 13-14
For a Catholic Church that has seen a steady annual decline in figures for Mass attendance – now only at about 13 per cent of Catholics nationally – and especially for young Catholics feeling like the only young person in the local parish, the sight of 300,000 pilgrims from around the nation and overseas will have provided a much-needed shot in the arm.
Prominent Australian theologian Tracey Rowland, dean of studies at Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, said that, although World Youth Day and the visit of Pope Benedict XVI would not fix Australia overnight, “Pope Benedict’s weeklong ‘Christianity 101’ intensive course for a couple of hundred thousand Australian pilgrims will certainly improve the situation, especially for Generation Y,” she said.
She noted that for many young pilgrims, World Youth Day was their first experience of solemn liturgy, adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, receiving catechesis with deep intellectual and spiritual content, and meeting many other young people not embarrassed to be identified as Catholics.
The Pope’s homilies were deeply Christocentric and in the closing Mass he explained the meaning of the Angelus – which he recited in Latin – as God’s marriage proposal to humanity, accepted on our behalf by Mary, she said.
“No one could go away from Sydney thinking that it is possible to compartmentalise the faith or reduce it to a few rules and Sunday observances,” Rowland said. “The Pope constantly reiterated the theme that it is all about a personal participation in the life of the Trinity and that changes everything. There is no room for secular spheres impervious to the sacred and divisions between public and private personas.”
Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher, chief organiser of World Youth Day, said that the Pope in his series of homilies during the event gave young Australian Catholics a blueprint of how to change the social and spiritual fabric of the “Great South Land of the Holy Spirit”.
“He’s provided us with a program for the spiritual and social renewal of our country and has offered young people the encouragement and inspiration to do that,” Bishop Fisher said. “Young people will return to their parishes, schools, communities and universities with a passion. We have all been shown that Australians can be more idealistic and passionate about what really matters.”
Bishop Fisher acknowledged Pope Benedict’s concern for how deeply secularisation has set in in Australia. “When (the Pope) talks about things like apathy and relativism, they’re commonplace in the Western world, but certainly I think he had Australia in mind, and it’s a real issue for us right across the board, not just for the Church.
“People are at times apathetic about key issues in the world, and Australians in particular are very comfortable. But the risk is that we don’t ask the bigger questions: what is it all for, and what about the poor people of the world who don’t have the affluence we have? The Indigenous Australians have been so prominent during WYD: how do they fit into the new wealth of Australia and the comfort?”
The challenge was clearly set out by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who told more than 1000 youths at a Theology on Tap session at an Irish pub in Sydney about the futility of living a double life – going to Mass on Sunday but not giving public witness to the faith.
“We can’t live a halfway Christianity,” he said. “Every double life will inevitably self-destruct. Being a Christian is who you are – period. And being a Christian means your life has a mission. It means striving every day to become more like Jesus in your thoughts and actions.”
The focus of the catechesis, held over the first four mornings of World Youth Day in 250 locations across Sydney and taught by bishops from around the world, was carrying out the Church’s mission empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Fisher said he felt optimistic after World Youth Day. “We often talk of Australia being a secular country, as if the view that religion has to be privatised or abolished had won. We know in fact that most people still say, when asked, that they believe in God and they pray sometimes and say they are Christians.”