SYDNEY, Australia – In what is often seen as one of the most intensely secular nations in the world, Australia received a wake-up call: the faith of the church on public display over the weeklong celebrations of World Youth Day.
For young Catholics used to seeing a steady annual decline in figures such as Mass attendance – now estimated at approximately 13 percent of Catholics nationally – and feeling like the only young person in the local parish, the sight of an estimated 300,000 pilgrims from around the nation and overseas may well have provided a much-needed shot in the arm.
Prominent Australian theologian Tracey Rowland, dean of studies at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia, said the July 15-20 World Youth Day activities and the visit of Pope Benedict XVI will not fix Australia overnight.
“But 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, referring to the young people.
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 numerous 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 people’s behalf by Mary.
“No one could go away from Sydney thinking that it is possible to compartmentalize the faith or reduce it to a few rules and regulations 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,” she said. “There is no room for secular spheres impervious to the sacred and divisions between public and private personas; there is only a part of us and a part of our culture that either belongs to Christ already or still awaits transformation.
“That task of transformation is the biggest adventure life in the world can offer us, and some half a million pilgrims got a taste of it at World Youth Day,” she said.
Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher, chief organizer of World Youth Day, said that in his series of homilies during the weeklong event, the pope gave young Australian Catholics a blueprint of how to change the social and spiritual fabric of the country that the pope dubbed the “Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.”
Pope Benedict addressed relativism and apathy during his homilies and emphasized the importance of unity and hope.
“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. All of us have been shown that Australians can be more idealistic and passionate about what really matters.
“We would hope that there’s going to be a new life and energy in every corner of the church, especially youth ministry, which will obviously be bigger and better as a result of World Youth Day,” he added.
Bishop Fisher acknowledged Pope Benedict’s concern for how deeply secularization has set into Australia.
“When (the pope) is talking 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,” Bishop Fisher said.
The challenge was clearly set out by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, who told more than 1,000 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.”