Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Conversion of a curmudgeon

As you will have noticed, I've become a little obsessed by World Youth Day, so thought I should explain a little about just why I've become so enthused.

Reasons for being cautious about WYD

I will admit to initially being somewhat curmudgeonly in my attitude to WYD.

I'm not in the Youth target age group, so I felt I could largely ignore it. True, lots of parishes are sending busloads of older people to the Papal Mass, but ours isn't, and neither are many others in my home town. When the Cross and Icon came to town, I said ho hum, just a chance for the pollies and local dignitaries to get their piccies in the paper.

As for the main event, let's face it, large jamborees of this kind are invariably filled with liturgical abuses and bad taste, and anything targeted at 'yuf' seems to be an excuse for the worst excesses of this kind.

There has been plenty of fuel for continuing scepticism. Things like employing a protestant Pentecostal, Guy Sebastian, to sing the anthem for the event. Hiring a lapsed catholic to be the main commentator at the papal mass. Promotions of the kind pictured below, featuring Bishop Fisher.

And the organisers of the event have taken lots of decisions I simply abhor - billeting pilgrims in a Muslim school for example, and watering down the Stations of the Cross in the interest of ecumenism.

Juventutem of course is a slightly different story, but I frankly found the website and programme confusing, and I'm still not sure whether if you just turn up you are going to be able to get into the events (but I gather so subject to numbers). I've been surprised at how little information has come out of it so far - just how many Juventutem pilgrims are there for instance? But at least the photos have started flowing!

More fundamentally, I really doubted that WYD could possibly make any inroads into the liberal bastion that is Australian Catholicism, let alone the secularism that dominates our society.

So I was looking forward to hearing what the Pope had to say to Australia, and was half thinking of seeing if I could enjoy a little nice liturgy by getting up to one or two Juventutem events (but hadn't actually organised accommodation or anything), but that was about it.

But then something strange happened....

Over the last few weeks we've seen increasingly vicious attacks on WYD - from the endless parade of nutters against WYD (from 'Raelian Lesbians' to disgruntled parish priests), the (probably successful) attempt to use the Pope's visit to extract money from the Church for an abuse case after a court case failed, and most importantly, the increasingly vitriolic attacks on the 'traditionalism' of WYD such as the grant of indulgences, presence of relics, and so forth.

And all of this has made me realise, that if the devil hates something this much, then there must be something good in it!

Positive signs

Seeing the Cross and icon arrive on Sydney Harbour really symbolises beautifully to me what the event is truly about. For pilgrims it may be a chance to share their faith, and reinforce it. But for Australians, it is literally about bringing the Cross to our land.

You have to feel sorry for what some of the pilgrims have been subjected to in Days in the Dioceses. Still, while some of the natives will no doubt be impervious, one can't help hoping that pilgrim reactions and attitudes must be having some impact - the story about the Newcastle priest who didn't think daily mass was a necessity, for example, was a classic. The shock effect of the pilgrim onslaught might not last, but we can hope.

Visiting Sydney on the weekend really confirmed that for me. There were problems, as I've previously pointed out. But reflecting on it, three things really struck me.

First, the atmosphere of the place has a very positive buzz, it's a little like visiting Lourdes or Rome: tacky, sure; but it still sucks you in.

Secondly, it is true that there are some really traditional practices that are being showcased here, and we should support that, however attenuated in form they might be. And in fact the liberal attacks are probably helping the cause (this is an area where the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity almost certainly applies! Certainly I thought Paul Collins' whinges just looked like sour grapes in the face of such enthusiasm from the participants).

Thirdly, a little taste of Lewisham (Sydney's TLM community) reminded me that we in the provinces live in such a state of liturgical deprivation that we forget what it is really like to worship in an attractive, real looking Church; to have regular access to nicely sung Solemn TLMs with all the trappings; let alone to enjoy things like sung Vespers. We forget that these things are something worth going a long way out of your way to get to when it is on offer, so that we can worship God in the splendor that is rightly his! Every single traditionalist in this country should be scrambling to get to Sydney for at least one Juventutem event (although actually, don't, because if you do go, my chance of getting a seat in that rather small church will diminish!).

Watch this space

I'm not saying everything will be perfect over the next few days - official broadcaster SBS's commentary looks to be relentlessly antagonistic (couldn't they substitute Dr Tracey Rowland or someone of that ilk for Paul Collins?), so if you can, watch it on EWTN (online or on cable) instead. Reporting in the secular media remains pretty negative from what I've seen.

I'm still hanging out, of course, for the start of the Pope's official participation from Thursday and expecting that to be a high. Even now, there is something really nice and special about knowing he is on Australian soil, and praying especially, one suspects, for the conversion of this arid land. More fundamentally, he always has something important to say and I look forward to hearing it.

All the same, the rest of the show has got something to it I think. Certainly, it seems likely to do a lot more good than harm. So do pray for the Pope, and the success of World Youth Day (and if you could spare a little prayer for me and my continuing conversion that would be great too!).

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