Event the Answer to the Church's Prayers?

By James Massola
Canberra Times
July 22, 2008

Two thousand years after the crucifixion, can World Youth Day help the Catholic Church in Australia rise again?

Church officials certainly hope so.

While senior church figures, including Cardinal George Pell and Bishop Anthony Fisher, bore the brunt of questions about the Church's handling of sexual abuse cases, World Youth Day organisers battled to accentuate the positives of the just-completed Catholic fiesta.

And despite the attempts of protesters and victim support groups to sully the event, the six days in Sydney were a triumph.

But confirmations of faith, vocations and even conversions are the manna the Church needs and only time will tell if it will get them.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of Catholics in Australia dropped from 26.6 per cent to 25.8 per cent between 2001 and 2006.

Only about 14 per cent of Australian Catholics attend mass, while the number of priests in Australia has declined from a high of 3895 in 1971 to 3171, according to recent Australian Catholic Bishop conference figures.

Organisers hope the event will arrest the decline.

Bishop Anthony Fisher said yesterday that World Youth Day would "resonate in Australian hearts for a long time to come and will forever be remembered in the lives of the young pilgrims".

Maybe so. But what exactly will the pilgrims remember?

Will it be the parties, the arena performances and the slick "boat-a-cade", or will it be the core business of the Church mass, catechesis, and prayer that stick in the minds of youngsters?

The World Youth Day media team delighted in sending out breathless factoids, including that 220,000 slices of bread were consumed at the Big Aussie BBQ and that the Pope met six native Australian animals from Taronga Zoo when in Kenthurst. The relevance of which is hard to say.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma claimed yesterday an economic benefit of up to $200million from the event.

But dollars, doughnuts and delightful furry creatures are surely beside the point when it comes to the renewal of faith.

It was the unscripted moments that cut through the gloss.

The first, Bishop Fisher's "cranky" comment, did no end of damage to "Boy George's" chances of one day assuming the position of Archbishop of Sydney.

Fisher's comments, seized on by the media, embodied the "old" church at its worst aloof, arrogant and disconnected.

The second, Pope Benedict's apology to victims of sexual abuse, provided a moment of hope for the Church in this country.

Critics attacked the move as symbolic; true enough, as it is the business of church leaders in this country to sort through these cases appropriately. It was still an important moment.

The third unscripted moment was pure political theatre.

While touring Randwick in his pope-mobile, Pope Benedict stopped to kiss and bless a child.

Though the oldest trick in the book, this was the point of World Youth Day the head of the "universal church" reaching out, across barriers and down decades, to the future.

Of course the moment also played well on the nightly news.

The Pope hit the right notes with his comments on the need for environmental protection, an end to materialism and an acknowledgment of the Rudd Government's first steps towards closing the gap with indigenous Australians.

But until the Church can address the big issues female priests, gay Catholics, married priests and birth control its numbers will continue to decline.

With vocations declining and the number of people attending mass falling, the real benefits of World Youth Day for the Church won't be clear for a while and it won't be measured in dollars, or slices of bread.


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