World Youth Day will be the first opportunity that thousands of Australian youth have ever had to see and hear of a different possibility for their lives.
It is occasionally said that St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures is best celebrated as a communal act of worship.
If one thinks of World Youth Day 2008 as a canticle, metaphorically, then the July international gathering will be the single biggest canticle of praise to God in Australia’s history.
Father Paul Smith OFM, Vicar Provincial of the Franciscan Province of the Holy Spirit that includes Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, says that in his Canticle, St Francis stressed the importance of praising God not only for all that is good but or all that lies between life and death.
“A canticle is not meant to be said or sung alone, it is a hymn or chant to be used during praise and worship,” Fr Smith said.
Although Aboriginal Australians had been here for thousands of years already and despite the problems associated with the history of European settlement, there is still much to be thankful for in the 220 years since the First Fleet arrived in Australia from England in 1788.
And when Australia hosts WYD it will become only the third nation outside Italy to have been visited by each of the three ‘traveling’ Popes – Paul VI, John Paul II and now Benedict XVI.
Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, who lobbied hard for Australia to host World Youth Day, said recently that Australian society has been living off Christian principles for two centuries, and is still, despite the opinions of some among the nation’s elite, a Christian country whose major social, political and legal institutions cannot be fully understood without reference to Christianity.
Cardinal Pell’s Auxiliary, Bishop Anthony Fisher OP who is also the chief organiser of WYD 2008, says Pope Benedict XVI likely chose Australia as host, in part, because secularisation has taken hold in Australian life and culture like few other Western countries.
One clue supporting this view is the 2005 meeting of Pope Benedict, then on holiday in the Italian Alps, with a gathering of priests shortly after he announced Sydney would host WYD 2008.
People in the Western world, Pope Benedict remarked, felt self-sufficient, with less need for Christ and Christianity; this is a suffering linked to the present situation where “mainstream churches appear moribund. This is so in Australia, above all.”
Bishop Fisher said the German hosts of WYD 2005 in Cologne told him that, first and foremost, the event “brought God out in public for the first time”.
With very public events like a powerful and prayerful re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross, and a Youth Festival that includes a Vocations Expo, public debate, Reconciliation, Adoration, music, performing arts, visual art exhibitions, film, community gatherings, street performers and workshops, Sydney will be transformed into a virtual outdoor cathedral.
“It’s not like overnight (Australia’s Catholic youth) will become saints, martyrs and apostles. For some, WYD will be a bit of fun but won’t move them deeply. But I truly believe that for a lot more it will be a time they’ll ask the big questions in their lives, like ‘how does God fit into my life’…
No longer, Bishop Fisher says, will having an active and passionate faith be an “embarrassing little secret” that many Australian youth are afraid to share with their friends.
“Religion has been privatised; there is a feeling that you should keep religion to yourself, almost something you’re embarrassed or ashamed about,” Bishop Fisher said.
“But, as happened after Cologne, by the final day of WYD in Sydney something like 200,000 young people will be excited by their faith; and by the time the Pope says the final Mass on the Sunday there could be half a million very publicly saying that God matters to them.
“I think many young people are still very idealistic, still want to build a better world and want to be a part of that happening, and part of what the young pilgrims will see in Australia is a young Church, full of people just like them, being a part of something that does have some answers to their big questions, because it has Christ at the centre of it.
“Today’s youth are sick of the materialism and secularism that has consumed the next generation up, and WYD could be a huge help to these youth.”
There is plenty of inspiration for Australian Catholics, not least of which is the roughly 125,000 international pilgrims set to descend on their shores to share their faith with; or the catechesis, centered around the workings of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the theme Pope Benedict approved for WYD – Acts 1:8, the last thing Jesus said to his Apostles before ascending to the Father:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”
Though the Holy Spirit will be an active participant in WYD 2008, Bishop Fisher says the event is “not magic”.
“It’s not like overnight (Australia’s Catholic youth) will become saints, martyrs and apostles. For some, WYD will be a bit of fun but won’t move them deeply. But I truly believe that for a lot more it will be a time they’ll ask the big questions in their lives, like ‘how does God fit into my life’, and they will be encouraged by thousands of others their age from around the world, and they will be ready to take this into their work, study and family life.
“It won’t just be ‘a funny, slightly embarrassing thing about me, that I’m more religious than my peers, that I like to pray or go to Mass or I want to live the ten Commandments’. They will have the confidence to feel quite upfront about their faith.
“Talk to people who’ve come back from previous World Youth Days and they saw they weren’t alone or weird by caring about God and wanting to live God’s will; they come back confident to take on the world.”
“We’ve seen (Australian) studies like the “Spirit of Generation Y” (those born between 1978 and 1994) that say almost half of young people now don’t consciously identify with a religion or Church; and even those that do only come very rarely to a church to worship,” Bishop Fisher said.
“We hope that WYD will strengthen young people’s connection with Christ and His Church, to tell them here is the place where you will find the big answers to your questions in life.”
He says international pilgrims attending WYD 2008 will find Australia is a very hospitable country.
“Already, volunteers that have come from the world have talked about how hospitable we are. They are astonished by the beauty of this country, its stunning geography that will be the backdrop to the spiritual events at WYD,” he said.
“They’ll meet something of our spiritual history. We’re a young Church compared to where they come from, and that gives us a certain energy and youthfulness. They’ll find here too what a multicultural society we are, as they’ll find people from their land already here.
“We’ve built a country that is really Catholic in the sense of including everybody, and that’s something I don’t think they’ll have seen before, as countries are often mainly of one particular culture. That will impress them, and will show them the capacity of Christianity to bring people together like that.”
Bishop Fisher finds it sadly ironic that a nation that often refers to itself as “the lucky country” with a solid democracy and so many opportunities, “yet at the same time we have youth issues like high suicide rates, drug taking, disoriented about their values and lot of hurting and damaged people”.
“Homelessness and despair are a real challenge for Australia, and while these things are more obvious when a society faces an obvious oppression like Communism.
“But secularism and consumerism come with a very attractive face as they have some Christian sides to them – they say we want you to be happy and comfortable, and they’re not bad, but you very easily get seduced into thinking that all that matters is getting more possessions, or experiences. But there’s no satisfaction in that, it doesn’t answer their needs.
“We’re tying to get youth to not just be comfortable and do the ‘lazy Aussie thing’, but to see that if they want real happiness then they’ll have to ask some hard questions, to commit to Jesus Christ and His Church and that’s the way they’ll do some really great things in their lives.”
- Anthony Barich