Addresses and Statements

World Youth Day 2008 Plaque Unveiling

22 Jul 2022

Barangaroo, Sydney, 22 July 2022

Papal arrivals are big occasions. We’ve had four in Australian history, but by far the most dramatic was the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI on the Sydney 2000, rebadged Das Papstesboot, on 17 July 2008. Accompanied by Cardinals Bertone, Rylko and Pell, and the bishops of Australia, as well as excited young people from every continent and nation, the Holy Father was escorted by thousands of people in boats, and then met by hundreds of thousands here at Barangaroo, or lining the foreshore for the ‘boatacade’ and streets for the motorcade. In the days that followed, half a million joined him for liturgy and catechesis, fellowship and fun. Many remember it as the happiest and holiest week in the history of Sydney, and at our reception today there will be many memories to share.

It had been made possible by courageous imagination and extraordinary collaboration. A few years ago Pope Benedict, recalling his many happy memories of WYD-SYD, quoted back to me my line at his farewell that Cardinal Pell was a big man, with a big heart and big dreams to match. As Archbishop of Sydney the Cardinal dared to risk a great deal hosting World Youth Day in a country with small Catholic numbers by world standards, far away from most Catholic populations, and in the middle of winter. Would young people come, many wondered? Would Pope Benedict himself, who was not a great traveller? Well, they did—in fact it proved to be the biggest gathering of people for any festival in the history of Australia and indeed of Oceania!

It took courageous imagination but also extraordinary collaboration: of Church leaders, of course; of families, pastors and youth ministers who prepared and brought the young people to Sydney; of civil leaders such as Prime Minister Howard, Premier Carr and Minister Nori who first backed our bid to host WYD, and PM Rudd, Premier Iemma and the Ministers who saw it through and were effectively our co-hosts; of many government depart-ments and services, led by Mr Roy Wakelin-King; of the very dedicated WYD staff, led by Mr Danny Casey, and our department heads; by our parishes and schools, religious orders and ecclesial communities, who hosted the pilgrims; by thousands of volunteers; by representatives of other faiths; and so many others. It is a tribute to the kind of country Australia was and I trust still is, that every sector of our community got behind WYD.

Recent census data suggests that Australia is trending like other western nations towards lower rates of religious affiliation and that young adults are the least religious demographic. Some have celebrated Australia’s rapidly transformation into ‘the great south land of unbelief’. Certainly people of faith should not underestimate the unrelenting march of secularism, the disillusionment generated by the abuse crisis, the competing sources of meaning, and the technologies and interests that drive them. There is no cause for complacency.

Yet the figures about declining religious belief and practice may reflect other social changes that mask enduring religious attachment. The census now offers ‘no religion’ as the first option for the donkey voters. Where immigration long buoyed up Catholic numbers, it has in recent years been diluting them, with many newcomers identifying with no religion. Some recent arrivals are believers but uncomfortable about saying so on government forms.

Many people today would say they are still open to or searching for the spiritual; that they still pray or attend church from time to time; but they acquiesced in the secularist campaign to mark ‘no religion’ if you don’t regularly attend the same church. Many of these still entrust their children to Catholic or other faith schools, their sick to our hospitals, their frail elderly to our aged care facilities, their needy to our welfare and pastoral care services, and demonstrate a fierce attachment to the Church’s works of charity. And those who still identify with a particular faith on census forms are probably far more intentional about it than ever before: it is their faith they are recording, not just that of the tribe, and they say so swimming against the cultural tide. The ‘no religionists’ can have far less confidence about what the ticks in their box actually mean, but what they certainly don’t mean are that 40% of Aussies are rusted on atheists. Unfortunately sections of the media read the census report without nuance in order to celebrate the apparent ‘decline’ in religiosity in Australia.

Some of you may remember the unremittingly hostile media in the years and weeks leading up to World Youth Day. It was going to cause traffic jams, equine flu, human flu, security issues, financial burdens, bad weather, a spike in teen pregnancies—you name it—and worst of all, an invasion of young Catholics, which was very scary. But from the time the youth arrived with their beloved spiritual grandfather the mood changed even amongst the hardest-hearted reporters and editors.

The sheer beauty of the Stations of the Cross that finished here at Barangaroo, the persuasive truth preached at the Opening Mass and Papal address here and the other addresses elsewhere, the overwhelming goodness of the young people who filled our city with joyful noise and knelt in solemn silence at Randwick—it was irresistible. Still to this day, one in five Australians identifies as Catholic and one in five of those say they attend Church at least monthly, but the demographic with the lowest formal affiliation has the highest monthly church attendance—one in three of the World Youth Day generation aged 18-34 who say they are Catholic are practising Catholics. It is too simple by far to say that young adults have ditched faith!

In those Spirit-filled days, fourteen years ago, God’s grace was poured into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims, both from our own backyard and from every corner of the globe. On arrival here at Barangaroo, Pope Benedict expressed his confidence that our young people, empowered by the Holy Spirit like the first disciples, would be able to take on all that life would throw at them. Fixed on the truth of Christ’s Gospel, they would be the fearless proclaimers of God’s saving love. During that unforgettable week, we witnessed, as Pope Benedict remarked in his final homily, the Church for what she truly is: “The Body of Christ, a living community of love, embracing people of every race, nation and tongue, of every time and place, in the unity born of our faith in the Risen Lord.” The dividends continue to this day: in vocations to marriage and family, priesthood and religious life, in lay people making the world a better place, in youth ministry, inter-diocesan co-operation, and collaboration between the faiths. Only a few weeks ago, 13,000 people joined the annual Corpus Christi procession through our city’s streets and many were young adults. World Youth Day 2008 has left its mark on our souls.

Today we unveil another marker of those wonderful days and their enduring impact. You are here because you were key to all that. My thanks to you all. Thanks be to God.