By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Against a backdrop of both enthusiasm and controversy, Australia's Cardinal George Pell tonight presided over the opening Mass of the 2008 edition of World Youth Day, before a crowd of more than 150,000 people gathered in the colorfully titled spot of Barangaroo, a former wharf in downtown Sydney named for the wife of an 18th century aboriginal leader.
Sometimes dubbed the "Catholic Woodstock," World Youth Day is the largest youth gathering held on a regular basis anywhere in the world. The event was founded by the late Pope John Paul II as a way of evangelizing young people and reenergizing the Catholic church.
One sign of the pumped-up Catholic spirit surrounding the event came late Monday, as a large crowd of pilgrims gathered in Sydney’s Hyde Park to watch an official World Youth Day countdown clock strike zero. The next morning, local police discovered that someone had spray-painted the slogan “Ratzinger Rules!” on a war memorial, a reference to the family name of Pope Benedict XVI.
Even the weather seemed to be cooperating with World Youth Day. July falls during the winter in the southern hemisphere, and in the lead-up to World Youth Day the evenings in Sydney had been unseasonably cool. As the opening Mass began, however, the sun was shining and the early evening was relatively warm.
Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, told the youth that they had brought "springtime to this Australian winter."
Drawing on the visibility afforded by a massive gathering projected to exceed even the turnout for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Pell in his homily appealed directly to people without religion, reflecting Australia’s reputation as an ultra-secular society.
“Christ is calling you home,” he said, “to love, healing, and community.”
For a few days, Pell confidently proclaimed, Sydney is “the center of the Catholic world.”
Pell urged the youth gathered for World Youth Day to join “that immense army of saints … which has enriched human history for countless generations.”
Australia’s indigenous tradition was on display during the Mass, as a local youth group performed native music prior to the liturgy, and a group of aboriginal dancers accompanied the process of the Book of Gospels just before Pell’s homily. A group of Maori pilgrims from New Zealand also sang after the distribution of communion on behalf of that nation's indigenous population.
Local media have featured a number of “good news” stories surrounding World Youth Day, such as the experience of a small group from Angola who travelled to the southern Australian city of Adelaide to take part in a “days in the diocese” program prior to the opening of World Youth Day. Not realizing that Adelaide is a three-hour plane ride from Sydney, the group had planned to walk from one city to the other, and had no funds for travel. In the end, residents of Adelaide conducted an impromptu pass-the-hat operation and bought plane tickets for the entire group.
Such positive press has been a welcome relief for the Catholic Church in Australia, reversing what had been a drumbeat of criticism and controversy.
Pell, for example, still faces demands that he apologize for his handling of a sex abuse case involving an adult victim who came forward in 2002, and was told by Pell that there was insufficient evidence that his contact with a priest was non-consensual. A police wiretap later captured the priest admitting that he had forced himself upon the victim.
Pell has referred the case to an independent church panel, but has so far resisted pressure for a public apology.
“We are open to improving the situation,” he said during a Monday press conference. “We’re keen to make a very difficult situation better. It’s very hard to know how to do it.”
On another front, an anti-World Youth Day protest group called “No to Pope” won a court case on Tuesday seeking to overturn a special law adopted by Sydney which made it a crime to “annoy or inconvenience” World Youth Day pilgrims. The offense carried a potential fine of U.S. $5,000.
The law was apparently crafted in response to reports that the “No to Pope” group intended to distribute condoms to World Youth Day participants. An Australian court ruled that the law amounted to an excessively broad infringement on freedom of speech.
In the local press, criticism has also continued to focus on the cost of the event. Between federal and state allocations, some U.S. $155 million in public funds are being spent on World Youth Day.
In one final way of raining on the parade, an Internet service called "MySpace" conducted an on-line poll of Australian users aged between 14 and 24, which found that 77 percent believe the Catholic church is out of touch with youth, 53 percent feel they cannot become involved with World Youth Day because of the church’s stance on sexuality, and 89 percent reject the notion they should remain virgins until marriage.
None of that, however, seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the youth gathered in Barangaroo, who were greeted not only by Pell, who spoke in five languages, but also by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Prior to the Mass, a procession featuring the flags of the various nations represented at World Youth Day made its way into Barangaroo, along with the World Youth Day Cross and icon.
The 12.5-foot Cross was originally built in 1983, for a Holy Year dedicated by Pope John Paul II to the redemption, and placed in St. Peter’s Basilica. John Paul gave the Cross to a group of young people at the end of the Holy Year, asking them to carry it around the world as a symbol of Christ’s love. Since 1994, the Cross has been carried through all the dioceses of the host region of World Youth Day during the year prior to the event; media outlets have therefore dubbed the Cross the “Olympic torch” of World Youth Day.
In 2003, John Paul also gave young people an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary to accompany the Cross. It’s a copy of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, or ‘health of the Roman people,” an ancient icon housed in the Roman basilica of St. Mary Major.
Despite Pell’s obvious pride in the having the pope in Sydney, he struck a slightly different note in his Monday press conference from comments made by Benedict XVI en route to Australia regarding climate change.
Aboard the papal plane, Benedict said that he hopes to offer “essential impulses" for meeting the "great challenge" of climate change, including "forming the ethical capacity for a style of life that’s necessary if we want to address the problem.”
On Monday, Pell said that while he agrees there’s a clear “moral obligation not to damage and destroy or ruthlessly use the environment at the expense of future generations,” he’s unconvinced that human activity had fuelled catastrophic climate change.
In a controversial Easter message two years ago, Pell declared that Jesus had nothing to say about global warming.
“I myself am a little bit of a skeptic,” he said Monday.
“I’m well aware over hundreds of years that there have been great changes in the climate, and whether we are going through one of those changes or whether we are contributing to that, I don’t know. Whether we are heading slowly towards an ice age or whether we are heading towards significant warming, I don’t know but I’m pretty certain if you look at the figures the temperatures have dropped worldwide in the past 12 months.”
Also in the Monday press conference, Pell issued a stern warning about declining fertility and family size in the West.
“No western country is producing enough babies to keep the population stable, no Western country,” he said. “Ruthless commercial forces are telling young people that this is the way forward, this is the modern way and they remain totally silent of the difficulties and damage this does to marriage and family life.”
As for Benedict XVI, he continues to keep a low profile at the Opus Dei-run Kenthurst Retreat Center outside Sydney, ahead of his official arrival at World Youth Day on Thursday. Media reports indicate that the pope has been made welcome by the locals in two ways that reflect his personal passions: the retreat center's piano was tuned especially for his use, and a small kitten named "Bella" was presented to the cat-loving pope to keep him company.