By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In language that was at turns almost lyrical, Pope Benedict XVI today offered a paean to “new age” spirituality – though, to be sure, certainly not of the “tune in, turn on and drop out’ variety.
Instead, Benedict described a vision of the “new age” proclaimed by Christ, and animated by the Holy Spirit, in which:
•t“Love is 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”;
•t“Hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships”;
•t“God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished – not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed.”
The pope’s comments came in his homily for the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Australia, before an audience at Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse estimated at 400,000.
Benedict called upon the young pilgrims to be “prophets of this new age.”
The pope wraps up his week-long visit to Australia tomorrow, meeting with donors and organizers of World Youth Day, as well as volunteers. He’ll leave Australia at 10:00 am Sydney time, arriving in Rome at 11:00 pm.
In his homily this morning, the pope argued that the technical and material accomplishments of the modern world often have not been matched by an equivalent spiritual depth.
“In so many of our societies, side by side with material prosperity, a spiritual desert is spreading,” the pope said, pointing to “an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair.”
Benedict also indirectly warned against the inroads of secularism, lamenting the psychology of “a world that wants to forget God, or even rejects him in the name of a falsely-conceived freedom.”
Benedict challenged the young pilgrims gathered in Sydney not to be conditioned by that social milieu, urging them not to be afraid “to stand up for Christ, letting the truth of the Gospel permeate the way we see, think and act, as we work for the triumph of the civilization of love.” He challenged the youth not to succumb to "blind conformity to the spirit of this age."
There were reminders during the Mass that Western-style secularism is not the only threat faced by religious believers today. During the General Intercessions, a Sudanese Catholic prayed for “Christians unable to serve the Lord openly, because of political pressure, unrest, or fear.”
Sudan has been torn by religious and ethnic conflict over the last two decades, sometimes pitting a Muslim-dominated north against a Christian and animist south. Sudanese Christians have repeatedly decried what they described as a program of forced “Islamicization” by the Muslim-dominated government in the north.
It’s not just the outside world that needs a “new age,” Pope Benedict said, but also the church.
“She needs your faith, your idealism and your generosity, so that she can always be young in the Spirit,” Benedict said.
In that context, the pope called youth to be open to the action of the Holy Spirit, and in particular to be people of prayer. He defined prayer as “pure receptivity to God’s grace, love in action, [and] communion with the Spirit who dwells within us.”
In comments directly especially at young people considering a vocation to the priesthood and religious life, Benedict urged them, “Do not be afraid to say ‘yes’ to Jesus.”
During the course of the Mass, the pope administered the sacrament of confirmation for 24 people from various parts of the world. The candidates were presented to the pope just before his homily, then confirmed immediately afterwards as the rest of the congregation renewed their baptismal promises.
As he has throughout the trip, Benedict struck a brief ecological note this morning, praising the “beauty of nature” in Australia. He cited Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, identifying him as “the poet,” to the effect that the natural world is “charged with the grandeur of God.”
Benedict XVI arrived at Randwick Racecourse this morning by helicopter, flying over the site before landing nearby. More than 200,000 pilgrims had camped out overnight in anticipation of the pope.
Benedict then moved around the racetrack in the Pope-mobile. He moved especially slowly, perhaps in part in response to complaints earlier in the week from people who lined the streets of Sydney that the Pope-mobile whizzed by so quickly that they barely caught a glimpse of Benedict.
At one point, the Pope-mobile stopped in mid-route so that a crimson-clad baby could be held up by a Vatican security official for a brief kiss from the pope, also decked up in a crimson mozzetta over his white cassock.
In the run-up to World Youth Day, the use of Randwick Racecourse had generated considerable local controversy. Protests came from Australia’s racing industry that other sites were available which would not have involved shutting down races for an entire weekend. In the end, the federal and state governments tripled the compensation for use of the park, to almost U.S. $40 million, and the Australian Jockeys Club’s lease for the racetrack was extended by 50 years.
World Youth Day organizers described today’s closing Mass at Randwick as “the largest gathering of people in the history of Australia,” exceeding turnout even for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.