As archbishop of Sydney, he invited Pope Benedict XVI to hold the 10th international celebration “down under.” As he pointed out, it will give a lot of people who ordinarily would not attend World Youth Day the chance to do so.
Register senior writer Tim Drake spoke with him at the chancery office in downtown Sydney.
What led you to your vocation?
I’ve been ordained for 40 years. I grew up culturally in an Irish-Australian world where there was a very high level of religious practice. Actually, the school I attended, in a provincial center called St. Patrick’s College, has produced more priests and old boy priests than any other school in Australia.
There are about 310 priests in 115 years of history. So, when I was a student in the 1950s, we would have three or four or sometimes five or six old-boy priests coming back to the school to speak to the students. In those days, the level of faith and practice in the schools was very, very high indeed.
I was a moderately successful schoolboy. I was a big fish in a small pond. I had this uncomfortable feeling that perhaps I should become a priest. I resisted it for a while and then eventually succumbed.
My father wasn’t a Catholic. He thought it was a waste of time — my going on to become a priest. My mother was a very strong Irish-Australian Catholic and very much supported me.
My background is not unlike the background of many Australians — Irish, English, Scottish — who have been here for three or four generations where there is significant intermarriage. Some of my people were here in the 1840s. Everybody was in this part of the world in the 1860s.
By Australian standards we’ve been here for a while, but it’s a brief period by European standards.
Next year, you’ll be hosting World Youth Day. Are you satisfied with how preparations are going?
I think one of the features I believe is unusual in comparison with the last two World Youth Days in Toronto and Cologne is the level of support that we are receiving from all the Australian bishops and in the Sydney Archdiocese the level of support we are receiving from the priests. The group pre-registrations are significantly ahead of our expectations at this stage, and from the Archdiocese of Sydney we have provisional registrations of 15,500 and we had budgeted for 17,500. We’ve got a very efficient team and a good blending of the practical and spiritual in the same people.
What will be positive about World Youth Day being held in Australia?
This is an unusual part of the world. We have a good way of life. In many ways there is a lot of hope that runs through the Australian population.
One difference compared to Italy is that I don’t think there is anything like the cynicism about Australian political leaders as there is in Italy. There isn’t that hostility to the establishment and political class. Sometimes British writers comment on the level of optimism, openness and decency here.
Sixty-eight percent of Australians are Christians, but an increasing minority of Australians are tempted to believe that you can lead a good life without God. They are also tempted to believe that the Christian values which still underlie much of our society are simply the product of common sense and that all good people would do things like that.
We know that’s not the case. One of the great blessings of WYD is that it will present the one true God to us, remind us of the teachings and role of Christ, the only Son of God, and generally place spiritual values into the public domain. That will be very good for us. That’s already happening, say, through the Journey of the Cross.
People from the Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea are even less likely to get to WYD, if it’s not in their part of the world, than our people because of a lack of money. One thing that is different is that WYD is now part of the world. This gives added opportunities for those of us who live in this part of the world.
Can you speak of the event’s ecumenical aspect?
This is a Catholic celebration. All of the WYD celebrations are unambiguously Catholic. Within the definition of Catholicism is an enthusiasm and commitment to ecumenism. The invitation to participate in this Catholic event will be offered first of all to young Australian Catholics and then to all young Australians.
I have often said that we’re especially inviting those young Australians who have no settled religious convictions who are often looking to choose a coherent worldview. There were some press reports that we had been asked by the Islamic community not to attempt to make converts and we said we wouldn’t. No such request was ever made and no such request was ever given.
This will be a Catholic celebration open to everyone and ecumenically sensitive as a Catholic celebration has to be today.
When the Holy Father comes, almost certainly he will meet with the heads of the other Christian churches and the leaders from the other great religious traditions.
One young Australian I met described the Church in Australia as a “sleeping giant.” Would you agree with that description?
We’re a minority Church. We’re about 28% Catholic, which roughly parallels that of the U.S. Neither Bishop Anthony Fisher nor myself has been described as sleepy. We have our difficulties. There is a pressure on us. There is an erosion of faith and practice, but we have formidable strengths and I think pockets of intense vitality. We want to increase the number of those pockets and spread and enlarge them.
Sleepy is the last word you would apply to anyone who is connected to the WYD team.
How many World Youth Days have you attended?
I have been to the last three in Rome, Toronto and Cologne. I became archbishop in Melbourne just before the Paris WYD. Almost no one was going, so I didn’t have time to get a group organized or go myself.
I led 200 Melbournians to Rome. We went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The wave of conversions that occurred in the Holy Land and on the way to Rome and the deep changes that it made to a number of those young people convinced me of the worth of the WYD.
We stayed at a couple of Italian places near the sea. Subsequently, some of the local Italian parishioners told about the good effects on their parish young people of so many prayerful young Australians who were staying in those parishes.
I’m very much an enthusiast for the religious potential of WYD. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t have invited the Holy Father here.
What do you see as the most significant challenge for WYD in Sydney?
The most important challenge here in Australia is the spiritual and religious preparation. I’m quite confident that it will be very, very well organized. The challenge is to prepare the young Australians spiritually so that they can benefit as much as possible from these young people of faith coming in from overseas.
Certainly, when I’ve been overseas and speaking to young people here and there I’ve invited them to come to Australia not just to strengthen their own faith, but to help us strengthen the faith of the young Australians.
Australia faces some significant Catholic education challenges, doesn’t it?
We can’t sit around wringing our hands. We have to try to do something about it.
I actually spoke to the priests this morning about it. We educate 20% of the young people in Australia in our Catholic schools. Some people suggest that, on the average, by the time they leave year 12, the final year, 5%-10% are practicing. Certainly in some schools it’s significantly higher.
I was saying to the priests that we mustn’t get used to that. We must be very, very clear that that is not satisfactory. You can’t blame the schools for all of the challenges of society, but I was urging the priests to be active in the schools.
Nearly every parish has got a Catholic primary school supported by the state and federal government. The priests are generally very good about going into the Catholic primary schools and supporting them not just with sacramental programs but in things like once a month organizing one of the Sunday Masses around one of the classes in the primary school.
There are real possibilities for mutual strengthening, but it’s a significant challenge.
Just recently, the bishops of New South Wales put out a pastoral letter, probably our first pastoral for over 100 years, titled “Catholic Schools at a Crossroads.” It pointed out some of our particular challenges.
The numbers in Catholic schools have gone up 20,000 in the last 20 years. All of those and more are non-Catholics. The majority of our poor Catholics are in state schools and a lot of our rich Catholics have gone off to other Christian schools. We’re educating middle Australia. There are worse things than that. We have reformed the curriculum and textbooks in Melbourne and Sydney right through the 13 years of schooling.
We are very serious about giving youngsters in our schools a sequential and comprehensive introduction to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.