Pope Benedict to Seize Chance at Church Atonement

By Alison Cotes
Courier Mail

July 10, 2008,23739,23996049-27197,00.html

THIS month is Pope Benedict XVI's biggest chance yet to salvage the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church world-wide.

From July 15-20 he will be in Australia to host the largest gathering of young people that Australia has ever seen, with almost 200,000 pilgrims registered so far, a crowd even bigger than that attracted by the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

And even though half of those pilgrims are from Australia, according to the WYD08 official website, the eyes of the world will be upon him, for this is the largest youth event of any kind in the world.

Already the celebrations bear the hallmarks of a circus, with side-shows and merchandise as elaborate as at any big sporting event. Pilgrims will be able to buy olive-wood items from Bethlehem (but no fragments of the True Crib - sorry!) and hand-sculpted candles, and there will be 2000 members of the clergy to add even more colour-and-movement to the event. Add 3000 members of the media and you have all the ingredients for a pop-star event. Last week Target stores launched an Australia-wide exclusive WYD08 clothing range, and McDonald's is one of the chief sponsors. So some businesses will make a killing.

It's not just for Roman Catholics, of course, for concerts will feature artists such as Guy Sebastian, a born-again evangelical, Damien Leith and Tap Dogs, none of whom in the past has held many banners for the One True Faith, as far as I'm aware. Nor has the Djilpin Arts Aboriginal Corporation, which will present a pre-Christian corroboree.

So it's going to be one enormous party.

But what's it really all about? Is it just another form of the old Billy Graham Crusades of the 1950s, where the participants find themselves in an emotionally charged atmosphere which will assume, in Benedict XVI's own words, a cultic character (where), "in the ecstasy of having all their defences torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe"?

These words were spoken as a condemnation of the rock culture, but is there a danger that the WYD08 celebration will have exactly the same effect?

And what will the thousands of young people get, apart from the pizzazz? As Jesus said once to the crowds who had flocked to see John the Baptist, "What did you come out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings houses". (Matthew 11)

They're certainly not going to see much of His Holiness who, as I read the schedule, will make only two public appearances, both in the Popemobile, one on July 17 where he'll do a kind of royal tour around Sydney's more exciting landmarks, and another on the day of the final Mass, where he will do a circuit of Centennial Park.

Then the parties (and the spiritual exercises, we hope), will continue. But how many of these thousands of young people will read the full text (all 4000 words of it) of Benedict's message to his dear young friends, which they can find on the official website?

And how many of the celebratory events will feature women in leading roles?

There's at least one seminar called Pro-Woman, Pro-Life: A New Approach to Forming a Culture of Life. But this doesn't mean that women will soon be seen in the ranks of the clergy, nor that there will be a change of heart about attitudes to homosexuals, or feature pro-choice options regarding fertility.

How many radical nuns and gay men will meet the Pope? And even though the Pope will meet members of all faiths, I'm willing to bet that the two Australian Anglican women bishops won't be among them.

The WYD08 bash is going to be the church's biggest party, and even though it may not be altogether to Benedict's liking, for so far he has shown no inclination to follow his predecessor in the line of jet-setting and tarmac-kissing, he's expected to play along.

And while the theme of the conference is to meet and experience the love of God, there will be many Roman Catholics, now adults, who are still wondering why this has never been their experience in the church.

The recent case of Anthony Jones and the abuse he allegedly suffered at the hands of a Sydney priest, only serves to highlight this. So, too, does the church's handling of Jones's complaints.

Will the Pope use this opportunity to apologise to the thousands of Australians who have been sexually abused by clergy over the years, and whose lives have in many cases been ruined, not to mention what it has done to their faith? The Church has much work to do to bring these people back, and the irony of this world youth festival will not be lost on them.

It's Benedict XVI's big chance, so let's hope he doesn't blow it.

Alison Cotes is a Brisbane-based writer and theological commentator.



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