WYD blooms beneath the aphids

'World Youth Day', by Chris JohnstonWorld Youth Day is multifaceted. It has been seen in many different ways and subjected to many kinds of analysis. A preacher might compare it to an autumn rose, full, richly coloured and perfectly formed. It would be right to notice the aphids, black spot and the drought that affect the plant. But if we focus only on these things, and regard the rose as a nest of horticultural problems and biological infestations, we might not stop to wonder at the beauty of the rose. And that after all is reason why the rose was planted.

Observers of the World Youth Day event have found much to question in its organisation, in the role played by Government, in the image of the Catholic Church communicated through it, and in its effectiveness in encouraging faith in young adults.

But these are secondary aspects of the event. They will certainly bear reflection after World Youth Day. But the main story is surely the experience of the young people who gather from around Australia and the world and the exuberance of their celebration.

The texture of World Youth Day is already apparent. Young people from Asia and beyond have gathered in Australia. Most have been offered hospitality by Australian families. In local church communities they have met young Australians whom they may accompany to Sydney.

The energies created in these meetings will be intensified in Sydney both through the main and the ancillary events. Many of these strongly emphasise social justice and encourage participants to reflect on their lives and their world. All this shapes a rich and exuberant experience which will be appropriated in very different ways.

Although World Youth Day is a Catholic Church celebration, it is also of broader interest. At the heart of the experience is shared meaning and connection. They feed the energy of the event. For a few days the young people have the opportunity to explore together basic symbols of Catholic faith about which many would ordinarily be ambivalent. They find themselves celebrating in the company of young Catholics of other nations who may instinctively and naturally identify with these symbols.

In Australia connection and meaning are problematic. From the tabloids to the scholarly quarterlies, observers remark on the superficiality of connection and meaning in Australian society. Binge drinking, gangs and a selfish materialism are only a few of the phenomena attributed to the young as evidence for the these weaknesses. It is no wonder that so many fear that Australians risk losing any strong sense of national identity.

It would be easy to exaggerate the defects of Australian youth culture and to oppose this culture to an idealised and nostalgic image of a communal and decent past. But the concern about connection and meaning makes interesting all large events where young people find simple ways of celebrating meaning and connection.

Whether these events are associated with sport, with Hillsong, with environmental movements or with political change, they suggest ways in which young people may enter easily into larger human and civic values.

In Australia Anzac Day offers the most thought-provoking secular parallel with World Youth Day. Young people increasingly include Anzac Cove in their overseas travels. Many also join the local celebration of the day. They find in it some sense of connection and meaning.

As with World Youth Day, it is common to question the depth and durability of the experience of Anzac Day, the motives of Government in endorsing it, and the values that it embodies. The questions are legitimate. But the phenomenon itself has much to commend it.

Gatherings of young people, including World Youth Day, in which the participants are encouraged to enjoy one another's company and to be reflective are precious. World Youth Day encourages families within the Catholic Church to offer hospitality and nurture to the young of their own communities and of overseas communities.

It encourages the young people to reflect on the meaning of their lives and on how they might live generously. Many will begin deep and lasting connections with their companions from other nations. This kind of event is a building block for a generous and decent Australia.

Andrew Hamilton SJAndrew 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, building community, pope's visit, binge driking, youth gangs



submit a comment

Existing comments

We have been blessed with about 50 vibrant young Africans here in Eltham and have enjoyed some wonderful African singing at our morning Masses. Sheer joy.
Patricia Taylor | 11 July 2008

Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them". We have to hang onto this, and trust that the young people will receive the wisdom and courage to reject the attempts of a conservative clique to hijack the event, and to dragoon the young people into a movement which seems hell-bent on overturning the work of the Holy Spirit at Vatican II, and taking us back to dark times.
Peter Downie | 11 July 2008

WYD "encourages the young people to reflect on the meaning of their lives and on how they might live generously." It would have demonstrated this generosity better if organisers had not banned a Jesuit Ignatian group, MAGiS, from holding a forum for gay and lesbian young catholics.

WYD would better encouraged precious spirituality in young people if it had were not burdened by archaic superstitions surrounding the exhumed relics of long dead, though saintly, young Italians.

If the Roman church hopes to help young people grow in God, it must look to their future, not its past
If the whole thing had been more liberal, politically and ecclesiastically, if would have won the hearts of Australians, instead of their resentment.
Brian McKinlay | 11 July 2008

Thanks Andrew for your thoughtful comments. i think that the gospel reading for this Sunday of the Sower is very symbolic of what will come from Sydney's celebrations. the seeds from these encounters with youth from all parts of the world will inspire many people to seek out where God is in their lives. Let's hope that the seeds fall on fertile ground.
Paul Rummery | 11 July 2008

When an event for the greater good comes up, the forces of evil and negativity swing into action.

I say to those who are against WYD, that this event will give the youngsters hope for the future. Don't they need it with youth suicides, binge drinking, speeding in cars and drugs making the headlines?

Hopefully, these pilgrims will cement friendships for the future and journey the road of life knowing that others are travelling with them spiritually.

Here in Melbourne, there is an air of excitement as their youthful energy fills the churches. Heaven knows we need it! God bless them all.
Mary Crawford | 11 July 2008

Andrew's piece and the comments come at a timely moment for this WYD skeptic (to put it mildly), who saw them after returning from a walk with Fred the dog in Darebin Parklands.

I was surprised to see a large group of mostly young people, some with banners. A man with a didgeridoo and sticks and two women were escorting them along the 'spiritual healing trail'. 'Pilgrims' from Korea and France, they were being invited to learn of another kind of spirituality - about people and land and other living things - than the narrow one promoted by the official WYD organisers.

So good on those people who set up the trail and those who generously offered the visitors this opportunity. Good on the young people who were engaging energetically with the strange place they were visiting - yes, and even with Fred, whose immortality is now assured on many digital cameras.
Chris Watson | 11 July 2008


Ross | 11 July 2008

Well said Andrew, I am pleased to read and hear something positive being said about WYD (as it should be) instead of it being continually bagged and knocked. I am taking two of my children, we are all looking forward to it.
Chris Halliday | 12 July 2008

We, in our little house,( of 40 years standing) had 7 pilgrims in our house. It was a joiuos period.
Theo Dopheide | 14 September 2008


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up