Australians celebrate announcement that the next WYD will take place in Sydney. Like mega-events? Here in Australia people generally do.
In 2000 we had the Sydney Olympics and in 2003 the World Rugby Cup. In
2006 we will have the Commonwealth Games. Apart from that, rugby
finals, cricket tests and Aussie Rules finals draw big crowds (to say
nothing of horse racing). The Melbourne Cricket Ground often hosts
100,000. Not bad for a nation of 20 million.

Yet Australia will have never experienced anything quite like a
World Youth Day, now set to take place in Sydney in 2008. For one
thing, most Aussie mega-events centre on sport. World Youth Day centres
on religion: on faith, worship and prayer. Sound uninteresting? Have a
look at what happened in Cologne last week.

When it comes to these papal-inspired gatherings, superlatives
fall short. One might have to speak of mega-mega. Imagine a multitude
of young people – a million or more in Cologne, Rome (2000) and Paris
(1997) and several million in Manila (1995) – converging to attend a
Mass. Imagine hundreds of thousands of very agile and enthusiastic 15
to 25-year-olds filling city streets over the course of a week,
singing, joking and chatting in dozens of different languages. Imagine
that they share a common interest and purpose — to discover or
reinforce a positive sense of what it means to be alive by practising
their Catholic beliefs. Such an event is likely to have an impact not
only on the participants, but even on sceptical on-lookers. This is
what has invariably happened. In Denver, back in 1993, the crime rate dropped
to a third of its previous level for months afterward.

World Youth Days were the bold idea of John Paul II. Vienna’s
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn calls them a “stroke of genius.” A number
of analysts had wondered, however, whether their success might be
dependent on John Paul’s extraordinary personality. So there was
considerable curiosity to see what would happen at Cologne. Now it has
become apparent that young people are responding not so much to a
person as to a role – the role of fatherly truth-bearer.

The New York Times interviewed one young chap from the
US state of Montana who represented a view common among the pilgrims:
“There was a lot of misguided teachings that I grew up with. Knowing
that there is someone up there who has made his entire cardinal’s
career out of straightening out those heresies and defending the solid
teachings of the Church is something I am very, very excited for the
youth.”

Joseph Ratzinger is certainly a different sort to Papa Wojtyla,
though they were close friends and collaborators. The media misread the
German cardinal’s temperament, portraying him as an austere
and implacable foe of heresy. Now that he can be himself his
true colours have emerged. He is a man who is kindly, sensitive and
somewhat reticent, though extremely intelligent and aware of what is
making the modern world – especially its Western variant – tick.

Cologne’s Cardinal Joachim Meisner has referred to Benedict XVI
as the “Mozart of theology.” Schönborn speaks of the “providential”
impact he expects the new Pope and the Cologne World Youth Day
experience to have on a tired and confused Europe. The vitality of
World Youth Day is badly needed in Europe, he says. European society is “lacking energy, in emotional trouble, in real
constitutional trouble, in need of people who can give reasons for hope
and show the decisive points, the options that will shape the future.”
Pope Benedict is exactly such a person, he argued, and thus his
election to the papacy was a watershed for Europe.

The Pope himself was looking forward to this encounter. In an
interview given in Castelgandolfo before departing for Germany, he
spoke of young people’s search for meaning. “I would like to show them
how beautiful it is to be Christian, because the widespread idea which
continues to exist is that Christianity is composed of laws and bans
which one has to keep and, hence, is something toilsome and burdensome
– that one is freer without such a burden.” But this is false, he said.
Christianity is “like having wings….It is not a burden to be carried by
a great love and realisation. It is wonderful to be a Christian with this knowledge that
gives us a great breadth, a large community. As Christians we are never
alone – in the sense that God is always with us, but also in the sense
that we are always standing together in a large community, a community
for ‘the Way’, that we have a project for the future.”

What the Catholic Church’s mega-event will mean for Australia
one can only guess. Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell (interviewed by
MercatorNet last year), must take most of the credit for
convincing the Vatican to hold the 2008 event in Australia. He seems
sure that it will draw multitudes yet again and immensely benefit a
young, highly secularised and ambitious nation still on the path to
defining itself.

When all is said and done, World Youth Days are not just
gigantic parties celebrating youthful exuberance. For the more
thoughtful and searching they provide a serious, albeit limited,
formative dimension that motivates further study. They instil
provocative thoughts of what the future might hold if committed
Christians were to follow their dreams of generosity and service. Most of the pilgrims will not
return to become priests or nuns, but they will take their work,
families and studies more to heart. That must surely have a good
effect on their surroundings. The idea of a vital Christian
culture may be dead in the corridors of the European Union in Brussels,
but not amongst youth. And they stand to be around a lot longer than
those ageing bureaucrats.

Dr Max Polak is chaplain to an intermediate boys school in Melbourne. He attended World Youth Day in Denver in 1993.