Thunder Down Under

COLOGNE, Germany — “I am pleased to announce that the next World Youth Day will take place in Sydney, Australia!”

With these words, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in front of an estimated 1 million pilgrims at the end of the World Youth Day Mass in Cologne, confirmed weeks of speculation that the next World Youth Day in 2008 would be held in Sydney.

Immediately after the announcement, strategically placed Australian pilgrims revealed T-shirts with the words “Come to Australia!” emblazoned on them.

Commenting after the announcement, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney declared that the choice was a “great privilege,” and that everybody was welcome to experience the beauty of the city and the country.

“World Youth Day is about bringing the face of Jesus Christ and the reality of God's love to the youth of the world,” Cardinal Pell said, adding that he hoped that WYD 2008 would strengthen participants' faith and reinforce values like “social justice, solidarity, family life and respect for life.”

Church-State Cooperation

The choice of Sydney resulted from an organized bid on the part of both the Australian Church and government officials. Said Cardinal Pell, “The partnership with governments was clearly a key factor in the success of the bid.”

This cooperation was reflected in the inclusion of Sandra Nori, minister for tourism for the state of New South Wales, as part of the 25-member Sydney Observation Team that went to Cologne to learn first-hand how to organize everything from the spiritual and liturgical program down to the logistics of transport and food distribution.

Commenting after the event, Nori said that she had never witnessed an event like World Youth Day.

“Hundreds of thousands of young people moving about the city, participating in the events, happy, positive, joyous and absolutely well-behaved — it is uplifting to see,” she said.

Back home, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard extended congratulations to the Catholic community in Australia for the “great compliment” the Pope paid by announcing Sydney as the host city. Howard also pledged to work closely with the Church “to make World Youth Day in Sydney a truly memorable event.”

The reaction from Australian pilgrims in Cologne was exuberant, with some seeing the hand of Providence in their country's selection.

“The Pope chooses places for World Youth Day where he knows that it is needed — he knows what he is doing,” said Anne Coles from Brisbane in Queensland. “Sydney's culture is secular but the witness of World Youth Day cannot be avoided. It will show that the Church is not out of date and that there is more to life than the annual Mardi Gras party.”

The Secular Challenge

As in other Western countries, the Church in Australia faces the challenges of secularism and post-modernism. Catholics hope that the witness of the hundreds of thousands of young people who will attend the mega-event will have a positive impact on their culture.

“Australia is a secular culture, and the Church has had to face both this cultural relativism externally and dissent internally,” said Rachel Byrnes, a World Youth Day pilgrim from Toowoomba in Queensland. “However, there are now signs of renewal in Australian Catholicism. The seeds of John Paul II's New Evangelization are beginning to take root.”

Citing new vocations to the priesthood and the growth of new lay movements in the Church, Byrnes suggested that contemporary Catholicism in Australia reflects the “creative minority” that Pope Benedict XVI has proposed for Catholic communities in relativistic secular cultures.

Father Anthony Denton, vocation director and chaplain to the Catholic Youth Ministry in Melbourne Archdiocese, said that the biggest problem facing Australian Catholicism is a crisis of faith. But World Youth Day can help transform Sydney and the country as a whole, he predicted.

“Hearts will melt when people see the young pilgrims, just as they have in every city where World Youth Day has been held,” Father Denton said. “Christianity is joyful, and that joy is evident in all those who attend World Youth Day.”

Father Denton was not fazed at the thought of the challenges facing the Church in Australia in organizing the 2008 gathering.

“It will be the best World Youth Day ever,” he said. “Sydney has experience in hosting global events like the Olympics, and we have coped well.”

The experience of those who have participated in previous celebrations will be vital, Father Denton added. “A lot of time and effort has gone into the formation and training of young Australian pilgrims who have attended past World Youth Days,” he said. “The knowledge they have gathered will help them become the key leaders and planners of World Youth Day 2008.”

Distance No Barrier

Despite the great distances involved, the Aussie contingent in Cologne had little concern that there might be a low turnout for the 2008 event. Australian pilgrim Peter Pfeiffer said that since the official announcement he has received lots of interest from pilgrims from other countries as well as pledges of attendance.

“People have a lot of questions about Australia and want to know more about it,” he said. “It is a place many people want to go to, and this will give them a great opportunity to visit. It will also be easier for young people from Asia to attend.”

Added the young Australian Catholic, “It will be a great World Youth Day, one of the best ever.”

Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin, Ireland.