By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In his first public act since arriving in Sydney on Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI today praised Australia’s efforts to reconcile with its indigenous population, saying it offers “hope to peoples all over the world who long to see their rights affirmed and their contribution to society acknowledged and promoted.”
At roughly 10:00 am in Sydney, Benedict visited Government House, the official residence of the governor of New South Wales. The pope was greeted by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia.
Later today, the pope will make his formal arrival into Sydney at Barangaroo, a former wharf being used for large public gatherings during World Youth Day. The pontiff will arrive by ship, accompanied by what organizers are describing as a “boat-a-cade.”
In his remarks at Government House, Benedict said he is looking forward to meeting the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered for the Catholic church’s youth festival.
“World Youth Day fills me with confidence for the future of the church and the future of the world,” the pope said.
Turning to Australia, Benedict made special mention of the country’s indigenous peoples.
“Their ancient heritage forms an essential part of the cultural landscape of modern Australia,” the pope said. “Thanks to the Australian government’s courageous decision to acknowledge the injustices committed against the indigenous peoples in the past, concrete steps are now being taken to achieve reconciliation based on mutual respect.”
Estimates are that aboriginal Australians currently represent 2.6 percent of the country’s population. Over the years, the indigenous peoples of Australia have been subject to various forms of discrimination and abuse, most famously including the “stolen generations.”
The term refers to children of aboriginal descent who were forcibly removed from their families by national and state governments from 1869 to 1979 and placed in institutions, some run by the government and others by various Christian denominations, including the Catholic church. The theory was that children would be disadvantaged by growing up in aboriginal homes.
A government inquiry from 1995 to 1997 led to a formal apology to the aborigines, including the creation of a “National Sorry Day” for the mistreatment of indigenous peoples observed each year on May 26.
Despite the efforts at reconciliation, aboriginal Australians still lag behind the national population on most indexes of well-being. Government data shows they are twice as likely as non-indigenous people to report their health as fair/poor, and one-and-a-half times more likely to have a disability or long-term health condition. The life expectancy of an indigenous Australian was 59.4 years for males and 65.0 years for females, approximately 17 years lower than the Australian average.
In his remarks today, Benedict XVI also once again struck an ecological note.
“The wonder of God’s creation reminds us of the need to protect the environment and to exercise responsible stewardship of the goods of the earth,” he said.
Benedict praised Australia for its commitment to international peace-keeping operations and conflict resolution, and for its multi-cultural society offering fertile terrain for “ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue.”
Late yesterday, Benedict moved from the retreat center outside Sydney where he passed the last few days to Cardinal George Pell’s residence in downtown Sydney.
Before leaving the countryside, however, officials from a local zoo introduced the pontiff to a sampling of native Australian animals, including a massive python named “Sebastian.”
As Benedict launches the formal portion of the World Youth Day program, some young pilgrims will be struggling not to be left behind. Local media reports indicate that more than 50 participants have been forced into isolation by an outbreak of the flu.
Nevertheless, organizers expect a massive turnout for tonight’s official welcome for the pope, which has been described in some media reports as “Super Holy Thursday.”