The revolution begins

01 Aug 2008

By The Record

In the face of a modern media-led culture dominated by a growing sense of emptiness, alienation and the increasing isolation of the human person, World Youth Day Oz 2008 was a wild success as 400,000 faithful including youth and pilgrims from around the world gathered at Randwick with Benedict XVI and the bishops to affirm Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life everlasting – the answer to humanity’s search for meaning in every way.


Spanish youth celebrate the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI after the final Mass at WYD08 that Madrid will host WYD 2011. Photo: CNS



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

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

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

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

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


An aerial view shows the crowd gathered for the final Mass of World Youth Day at Royal Randwick Racecourse in Sydney, Australia, July 20. Pope Benedict XVI presided at the service attended by an estimated 350,000 people. Photo courtesy of WYD08/Getty
Pope Benedict XVI pets a koala during a presentation of animals July 16 at Kenthurst Study Centre in Kenthurst, Australia, July 16. The pope petted several animals, including a python and a baby crocodile, brought to him by zookeepers from Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano