The Australian church turned on a spectacle to welcome the pope to World Youth Day, July 15-20, with pomp and pageantry as well as large dollops of genuine warmth.
Even before Pope Benedict XVI arrived on Thursday a ‘welcome’ sign appeared in the sky on Tuesday to greet the 125,000 pilgrims from around the world.
Bus drivers and Sydneysiders in general carried on this spirit, going out of their way to help pilgrims navigate their city. One had only to open a map on a street corner to have some passerby offer helpful advice. One man even offered Kiwis a lift in his car to the New Zealand pilgrims’ national gathering in one of Sydney’s relatively inaccessible, western suburbs. ‘Very unusual behaviour,’ one local remarked.
Sydney’s Catholic school artists and different cultural groups entertained the waiting crowds before the opening Mass and in the several hours before the pope arrived at Barangaroo on Thursday.
These groups gave a polished performance. The staging of the Stations of the Cross over several of the city’s finest features was a masterstroke, at one point transporting ‘Jesus’ by barge to Barangaroo for the final few stations.
Several have remarked on the way the plight of Aborigines was highlighted in the dramatisation of a number of the stations.
Disciples of every hue testified to the true meaning of ‘catholic’ with many of the far-flung reaches of the world represented.
For the young people who arrived full of excitement and quite agog at the way the church was welcoming them, there was plenty of activity covering all aspects of religion.
There were daily catechesis sessions teaching about aspects of church in prayerful and joyous context (1 000 priests heard confession during the week of World Youth Day) and Eucharistic devotions were readily available.
Music and fun abounded with a full programme of entertainment at easily accessible sites around the city and Darling Harbour hummed with activity daily and well into the night.
For those seeking an understanding of justice issues, the Jesuits’ Magis Programme, the largest in the WYD week, looked at such urgent issues as human trafficking, which has surpassed drug smuggling as the biggest international crime.
One session raised some questions about abortion which are not often heard, challenging Catholics to wake up to the distress of women when they have an abortion and to do something about it. And what about the fathers? This is a question I have resolved to research more fully for next month.
World Youth Day brought many challenges to youth of all ages and an ongoing challenge for the church will be in building on the momentum of 223 000 young people keen to pursue their interest in the institution and its issues. Let’s embrace this spirit and throw open the church doors to new ideas and new ways of doing church.