Australia is a thoroughly secularized place, where the zeitgeist isn’t just apathetic, but downright hostile to the faith. At least, that was the case before World Youth Day. Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher told the story of a skeptical Sydneysider who had e-mailed World Youth Day. Originally, he was quite cynical, but as the event went on, he said that “he discovered a spiritual side to himself that he didn’t know he had,” said Bishop Fisher.

“It was amazing to see the Stations of the Cross in the center of a secular city and that people can show their faith without fear of ridicule,” said Rob Cusack, a father of three from Sydney, who attended the closing Mass with his wife, Kirsty. “It can be quite confronting to be Christian in this country.”

“I think World Youth Day has had a big impact on Christianity as a whole,” said Kirsty Cusack. “It shows that religion doesn’t have to be a dividing thing, but can be a uniting thing.”

Prior to and even in the first days of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Australia, the secular media was focused primarily on past cases of clergy sexual abuse, but the Holy Father’s vision was set not on the past but on the future.

“As I’ve said before on previous occasions, I would invite you to keep listening and following what the Holy Father’s intentions are in terms of his program,” said Father Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, when repeatedly asked if the Holy Father would be making an apology regarding the abuse crisis in Australia. “He’s obviously informed about the situation and is aware of the current news in Australia at the moment. Let’s listen to what he may have to say.”

From his entry into Sydney on July 17, the Pope concentrated on breathing a new spirit into the Church’s young, particularly in Australia’s highly secularized culture where Catholics have often been fearful to practice their faith publicly.

As the Holy Spirit did for the frightened apostles in the Upper Room, Pope Benedict hoped to give courage to Catholics in Australia.

“I pray that this great assembly, which unites young people ‘from every nation under heaven,’ will be a new Upper Room,” Pope Benedict XVI said during his homily at the final Mass at Randwick Racecourse.

The response of the young — wearing their faith on their sleeves and singing and dancing for Christ in the streets — had a motivational impact on the country’s Catholics, who came out in far larger numbers than expected for the papal arrival and the Stations of the Cross.

Before World Youth Day, “We couldn’t find even 10 people to come to WYD,” said 16-year-old Rose Mc-Kenna of Dubbo, Australia. “There’s a stereotype that church isn’t cool.”

But once it started,“I think a lot of people who wouldn’t normally take part are taking an interest,” said Alison Eaton, a Sydney resident who turned out to watch the goings-on. “A lady two doors down from me who you wouldn’t think of as religious was watching and asked me about the Stations of the Cross.”

World Youth Day volunteer Rose Colombo described the situation in Australia prior to the Pope’s visit as hostile.

“Australia isn’t used to bringing faith on the street,” said Colombo. “We haven’t seen habited nuns in decades.”

“This morning I saw six lanes of young people walking, singing and dancing on their way to Randwick Racecourse,” said Colombo, fighting back tears. “They weren’t punch-drunk and picking fights. It’s inconceivable that this is happening in Australia.”

“When young people turn 18, they don’t go to church; they go to the nightclubs,” said Faye, an 18-year-old pilgrim from Perth.

A group of Nashville Dominican sisters from the Unied States has been helping out with World Youth Day for the past year. Many in the order came a month before WYD to make preparations for the event. Four of the sisters have been asked by Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell to stay on in Australia, helping out with university chaplaincy at Sydney University.

Australian television repeatedly concentrated on images of young, habited nuns during the various papal events.

By the time the Pope arrived in Sydney, most of the negative stories had ended or were buried on inside pages of the newspaper, replaced with images of the joy-filled pilgrims, massive crowds, a smiling Pope and the actor who played Christ in Sydney’s Stations, hanging from the cross.

Before World Youth Day, Michael White and Rupert Lee, two self-described “skeptical old blokes” from Queensland, Australia, were “dragged” to the final Mass on Sunday by their wives. They said they expected to find drinking and alcoholic revelry in Sydney, but were struck by the passion and devotion of the young people.

“I was quite impressed to see some young men praying the Rosary together,” said Lee. “It’s been many years since I’ve done that.”

Inspirational stories like that were repeated all over the city, throughout the week.

Long-term Impact?

Some question whether the weeklong event can have a long-lasting impact on a culture that’s so caustic to the faith.

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins said that World Youth Day 2002 Toronto continues to bear fruit, and that if Sydney has prepared for the follow-up, it will be equally as fruitful.

“If prepared for, it will be fruitful,” said Archbishop Collins. “There must be deep preparation for it. Prayer is the important part.”

Bishop Fisher, World Youth Day coordinator, said organizers have planned a follow-up meeting with youth leaders in November to reflect on the Sydney experience and seek ideas for what must happen in the future. Many think that a change has already taken place.

“The Church in Australia … is different,” said Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, at the conclusion of Sunday’s Mass. “The Church in Australia can look to the future with greater confidence. And Australia itself is different. This land of great beauty is now surely even more blessed with the great hope brought to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Tim Drake filed this story

from Sydney, Australia.