Controversies forgotten amid 'boisterous' WYD celebrations

'World Youth Day Fish', by Chris JohnstonWorld Youth Day has now come and gone. It was as if tropical fish of every colour had briefly made the city their pond. Many thousands of young Catholics from Australia and overseas met, found connection in their faith, celebrated exuberantly, and are now returning to their smaller worlds. Thousands of families, schools and parishes around Australia offered hospitality to the young pilgrims. It was a boisterous exercise in connection at many levels.

Now we have seen the splendid and varied reality of World Youth Day, it is worth reflecting back upon the controversies that accompanied it. The principal points at issue were the support given by the State to a Church event, the laws introduced to cover the event, the media coverage, particularly of Church handling of sexual abuse, and the image of the Catholic Church conveyed by World Youth Day.

The argument that Government support for World Youth Day breached the walls that separate church and state was a furphy. In staging World Youth Day the Catholic Church was a significant secular player that contributes greatly to the economy through its schools, hospitals, institutions of social outreach and networks of volunteers.

When an economic player of that size sponsors a large international event that brings many tourists to Sydney, governments must decide whether it is prudent to contribute to the costs of the event in the expectation of larger benefits. That decision is as open to debate as it is for funding the Grand Prix.

Whether this Government commitment was properly and transparently made on the basis of public benefit is a fair question to ask. At special events governance easily becomes unaccountable.

Responsibility for the regulations introduced to protect World Youth Day rested with the State Government. These laws were rightly criticised by citizens and pruned by courts for their overbroad curb on civil liberties.

It was perhaps regrettable that many Catholics failed to see that the armour offered the Church by such regulations is a shirt of Nessus. Churches need freedom of religious expression in order to thrive. The last two Popes have insisted on it when addressing Islamic states. Laws that limit free expression on the grounds of annoyance leave churches vulnerable.

In a secularist society, for example, some groups will be annoyed by public religious symbols like crosses, and others by protests defending the right to life. In Islamic societies some will be annoyed by the sight of Christians going to worship. In the event, the protests against World Youth Day, condoms and all, simply fed the young pilgrims' enjoyment of the rich human pageant that they encountered in Sydney.

The critical attitude of the media to World Youth Day also provoked comment. For some Catholics it revealed prejudice against their church.

To my mind, this view is too simple. Media coverage before big events, like the Beijing Olympics, always focuses on the defects of organization and of people, and on ideological conflict. Those prejudiced against the events hope that they will fail, and provide the media with rich conflictual copy. But when the buoyant human reality of the event is seen, the media coverage becomes very favourable.

This was generally true of World Youth Day. Except for one issue. Coverage about the Catholic Church treatment of sexual abuse continued throughout World Youth Day. But this did not prove media prejudice against the Catholic Church.

The old saying runs, 'If you do the crime, you do the time'. Appalling criminal behaviour by some ministers of the Catholic Church, the terrible suffering of their victims, and the unaccountability of some Bishops, are fresh memories. We should expect that, like football clubs with notable drug problems, the Church will be confronted with its sins until it has persuaded people it has genuinely changed and acts ethically and accountably.

The response of the leaders of the Sydney Church was less than persuasive. But the Pope's apology, with its emphasis on justice and compassion, offered exemplary leadership. If Australian Catholics speak and act in the spirit of his words, the media will gradually cease to scrutinise the Catholic Church through the single lens of this issue.

Finally some Catholics criticised the image of Church communicated through World Youth Day. They saw it as a monolithic event, dominated by the presence of Pope Benedict with his Cardinals and Bishops. Certainly, the young people were enthusiastically involved within the life of this hierarchical Church. Their faith was expressed through participation at Masses, sermons and Confessions.

But images are refracted through the many ways in which people experience the event. It is like a pool in which the large, highly coloured fish stand out, but whose ecology has been shaped by the busyness of smaller, equally gorgeous creatures.

The young people celebrated World Youth Day in their own way, took what they wanted from it, and shaped what they received. The World Youth Day that remains with them will have a distinctive personal image. The church they found was a broad and welcoming church.

Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew hamilton, world youth day, contoversy, bishop robinson, clergy sexual abuse, anti-annoyance laws



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Existing comments

Andy, your article beautifully caught the WYD mood here in Sydney and once again revealed how insightful a take you have on contemporary society.Phil
Phil Crotty | 21 July 2008

What a beautifully balanced article and commentary.Many thanks to Andrew Hamilton for his clear minded exposition of the issues.
Paul Gleeson | 21 July 2008

Dear Andy,

As always a beautifully crafted and well balanced article. Hope you had the opportunity to enjoy the events in Sydney.

All the best,
Mark Dowell | 21 July 2008

Thank you for a very thoughtful and balanced article
nerina | 21 July 2008

I agree that this is a balanced article. Just a thought ...

"In Islamic societies some will be annoyed by the sight of Christians going to worship."

I'm sure you would not have meant all Muslim-majority countries. But in case you did, you might consider taking a trip to Sarajevo.
Irfan | 21 July 2008

Thanks Andrew for your commentary. Somewhere else we have heard or seen a commentary on the absence of women on the main platform of WYD although their voices have been heard in song, what a shame there were no real dresses on the the stage for the world to see. Some the guys had lovely lace etc.!
Rosemary Keenan | 21 July 2008

This propaganda exercise was about taking the church back to pre-Vatican 2. It was about the re-assertion of male hierarchical control. The whole exercise reminded me of the 1950s. Note the nuns and clerics in traditional habits and the use of Latin during the Mass. The Pope described Mary as the representative of humanity. Where were the Marys on stage at the Papal Mass?
Deirdre Cooke | 21 July 2008

Well done, Andy. Thanks.
Frank Moloney | 21 July 2008

I am one who has experienced on many fronts and levels the effects of clergy abuse and betrayal. It is a betrayal that effects a whole community and survives on secrecy. I so seek a world in which the sacred has been reclaimed.

During the last weeks I have felt every emotion possible as I saw the issue being so badly handled. I felt despair and rage and struggled to remember that I knew there was another way. Fr Mark Raper so ably has demonstrated that other way. The Pope has taken a very necessary step as part of the process of healing by expressing shame, the deep hurt and his call for compassion. I was surprised at the depth of release I felt in hearing his words. The challenge is now for all of us as a community to use the opening that has been created. For me what I now see is hope.
john dallimore | 21 July 2008

Even the Sydney Morning Herald, amid its continuing bigoted coverage today, couldn't help but grudgingly admit that WYD was "a remarkable success". By that measure alone we can conclude it was an absolutely unprecedented and astronomical success.

It should not be necessary to argue for taxpayers' money to support Catholic events merely on the grounds that "the Catholic Church was a significant secular player that contributes greatly to the economy through its schools, hospitals, institutions of social outreach and networks of volunteers."
Governments should not have to apologise for the fact that they support the Catholic Church because they know that encouraging people to be good Catholics will make them good and productive citizens.
Ronk | 21 July 2008

I'm with Deirdre Cooke! Even the media was conned!
Vince Carroll | 23 July 2008


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