By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Novelty was in the air in Sydney tonight, as Pope Benedict XVI kicked off his first-ever trip Down Under by arriving in Sydney harbor aboard a cruise ship, accompanied by a 13-vessel “boat-a-cade.” (To date, the only other time Benedict XVI has initiated a foreign trip with a boat ride was also during a World Youth Day, in Cologne in 2005.)
Among other departures, this may well have been the first time that Benedict XVI, a notoriously music-loving pope, was serenaded by a didgeridoo – an aboriginal instrument, made from a termite-hollowed bamboo or eucalyptus limb.
If tonight’s atmospherics were out of the ordinary, however, Benedict XVI’s message was anything but. Speaking to a crowd of young pilgrims estimated at more than 140,000, the pope served up a classically “Ratzingerian” reflection on the core themes of his life and his papacy, which might be summed up in the single word “truth.”
Benedict began by expressing wonder at the natural beauty of Australia and the various parts of the world he crossed in order to reach it, from the Mediterranean and North Africa to Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Yet a deeper look at today’s world, the pope said, reveals not just beauty but also “scars.”
Some of those scars, he said, are physical: “erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption.” Some of the youth gathered in Sydney, the pope said, “come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought.”
The social environment, too, Benedict said, shows scars: alcohol and drug abuse, “the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation … often presented through television and the internet as entertainment,” as well as violations of human dignity and human rights, above all the right to life.
What are the deep forces at work producing those scars?
“Freedom and tolerance,” the pope warned, “are so often separated from truth,” a tendency the pope described as “sinister.”
“This has fuelled the notion, widely held today, that there are no absolute truths to guide our lives,” Benedict said. That observation brought the pope by a short route to what is arguably his philosophical bête noire: relativism.
“Relativism, by indiscriminately giving values to practically everything, has made ‘experience’ all-important. Yet experiences, detached from any consideration of what is good or true, can lead not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair.”
In that context, Benedict XVI urged youth to embrace the “more” offered by Christ, who, the pope argued, marked out the only path that leads to authentic human fulfillment.
In another vintage touch, Benedict warned of forces today that seek to exclude religion from the public arena, or to limit its role to the pursuit of practical humanitarian aims. That secularist push is often cloaked in the language of tolerance, the pope said, but in reality it is an ideology of godlessness – the result of which, Benedict warned, is that “debate and policy concerning the public good will be driven more by consequences than by principles grounded in truth.”
The pope urged young people, based on their baptism as a “new creation,” to defend the truths of Christ, which alone, he said, have the capacity to shape a better world.
Benedict cited a number of urgent social challenges: “non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment.” He insisted that those issues have to be linked to the defense of “human life from conception to natural death,” using especially stark language on abortion.
“How can it be,” the pope asked, “that the most wondrous and sacred human space – the womb – has become a place of unutterable violence?”
All these concerns, Benedict said, have to be addressed together in light of the truths of Christ.
“Our world has grown weary of greed, of exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses and the pain of false promises,” the pope said. “Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion.”
“Let this,” Benedict urged, “be the message that you bring from Sydney to the world!”
As the pope cruised through Sydney harbor, he stood on the prow of a Captain Cook cruise ship, joined by 16 young people. Benedict was beaming throughout the brief cruise, despite the inconvenience of a strong sea breeze which repeatedly mussed his crimson mozzetta, the shoulder-length cape worn by the pope over his white cassock.
When Benedict arrived at the Barangaroo site, he was greeted by a group of indigenous persons who performed a brief dance to native music. Despite his well-documented preference for Mozart and the European classics, Benedict smiled graciously and then thanked the dancers.
Later, a group of Pacific islanders performed a native dance as the Book of the Gospels was carried towards the main altar in Barangaroo.
So far, reconciliation and justice for aborigines has emerged as recurrent theme in Benedict’s remarks, and he returned to the subject again tonight, greeting the young indigenous persons present at Barangaroo, and acknowledging both the “suffering and injustice” faced by indigenous persons in Australia but also the “healing and hope that are now at work.”