COVER STORY : WORLD YOUTH DAY 2008: Christianity challenges the secular age
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, August 2, 2008
The presence of hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world for World Youth Day should have an important and beneficial effect on Australia.
The real impact of World Youth Day in Sydney will undoubtedly be on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world who participated in this modern pilgrimage of grace, and may not become apparent for months or even years.
However, it has already had an important and beneficial effect on Australia. The generally fair and extensive coverage in most of the nation's media has meant that Pope Benedict's message, calling for a conversion of heart and renewal of faith, has been conveyed to millions of people in Australia, and hundreds of millions around the world.
Sydney, which has a reputation for hard-bitten cynicism in relation to religion, was eventually tamed by the influx of ordinary young men and women who occupied the streets and assembled peacefully in their tens and hundreds of thousands at different venues around the city.
It may be premature to predict it, but the massive and enthusiastic crowds of young people who virtually took over Sydney for World Youth Day may have decisively ended the 40-year decline of Christianity in Australia.
That decline can be measured in the statistics. In the late 1940s, Australia was an avowedly Christian country, with over 70 per cent of the population being Christian. Equally significantly, the number of people who said they were of no religion was extremely small, less than 1 per cent.
By the time of the 2006 Census, the number of professed Christians had fallen to about 58 per cent, and, even among them, practice rates had fallen substantially; but those who described themselves as having no religion had risen to 19 per cent, up from 16 per cent in 2001. The decline in Christian belief and practice has been accompanied by indifference, rather than hostility, particularly among young people.
The erosion of belief began with the "baby boomers", the generation born between 1946 and 1965, and continued with Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980. The trend has accelerated with Generation Y, the children of the baby-boomers.
A youth culture, heavily influenced by TV advertising, pop stars, the Hollywood culture, and technology such as mobile phones and the internet, is both individualistic and secular, and thus has little in common with traditional Christianity.
Despite its material wealth, this generation suffers from high levels of anxiety, depression and mental illness, with many disconnected from family through the rising incidence of marriage breakdown, abortion and other causes.
In his numerous addresses to the pilgrims at World Youth Day, Pope Benedict proclaimed a different message: that true fulfilment and inner peace come not from money, sex or drugs, but from building a personal relationship with God. The large number of talks and lectures given to the pilgrims during their week in Sydney emphasised that belief in God is consistent with human reason, and that Christianity answers the deepest needs of the human heart and mind.
The joyful acceptance of that message was evident in the faces of the young people who attended World Youth Day, and flowed on to the people of Sydney who welcomed them with open arms.
The presence of hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims at World Youth Day celebrations around Australia will have a significant effect even on those Australians who did not travel to Sydney.
In every capital city, and many provincial cities, the presence of pilgrims from overseas has provided a shot in the arm for Christians who have often felt isolated and marginalised in an increasingly secular culture.
The relentless attempts by some sections of the media, including the ABC and the Fairfax media, to discredit World Youth Day by linking it with clerical sexual abuse, or the cost to taxpayers - or criticism of World Youth Day by some clerics - apparently had no effect on the pilgrims who attended the various events in Sydney.
It may have discouraged some from attending the final Mass at Randwick Racecourse. Even so, the attendance of between 400,000 and 500,000 was the largest gathering of any type in Australia for many years.
It was particularly significant that the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the Governor-General Michael Jeffery and NSW Premier Morris Iemma personally welcomed the Pope to Australia.
Their presence confirmed that Pope Benedict is not only a head of state, but also a source of moral authority. His call for people to be "not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty" was profoundly different from the messages of contemporary culture.
It radiated out from World Youth Day to the rest of Australia, challenging all people to accept a different vision of what is important in life, and what it means to be truly compassionate towards our neighbour.
- Peter Westmore