World Youth Day Sydney: look for the wider trend

World Youth Day Sydney: look for the wider trend

Joanna Bogle

A mild summer evening after a day of driving rain, a suburban church, and some thirty young people kneeling in prayer. The sound of the O Salutaris rises as a young priest begins the beautiful service of Benediction. The singing is a bit wobbly, but it is stronger for the Tantum Ergo as the group seems to gain more confidence. The Divine Praises are said with vigour. Afterwards there is a buzz of talk as people drift towards the parish hall for soft drinks and snacks, and a clatter of chairs as these are drawn up and a guest speaker is invited to talk.

An evening in the 1950s? A vignette from long ago as a more innocent era is evoked in a sentimental memory? No, this today and young people from our local deanery were gathering for their regular get-together as part of the preparations for World Youth Day.

The reason I know a bit about this is that I was there, as guest speaker on this occasion, giving a talk on the Church's calendar and the traditional feasts and seasons that mark our year.


It struck me forcibly during the time of quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament that in so many ways this was very different from what I remember of parish 'youth activities' in the 1970s. Back then, guitars seemed central to any and every activity in church, and Benediction with Latin hymns, incense, and a priest in a cope was virtually unthinkable.

A time of silent prayer would have been guided by some invocations concerning vaguely political issues - the economic relationship of our country with the Third World, for example - or by some one announcing references to news events of the past week, such as bombs in Northern Ireland or discussions about the need for world disarmament.

What has brought about this mood of change? Is it just the passing of the years, a new generation seeking something different? Probably there is something in that. One can also point to specifics. Trawling through some of these gives food for thought, and cause for gratitude.

Pope John Paul called the Church to a fresh confidence, and showed us that the centre of our lives must be Christ rather than any political agenda. He made Catholics feel that they belonged to a Church which counted for something, which mattered.

As the post-Vatican II fog drifted a bit, clear theological thinking began, gently, to permeate from Rome consistently over 20 years, a Ratzinger influence that was a gift of immeasurable value. Cliches centred on Liberation Theology which had become a staple of Western sloppy thinking as seen in Bidding Prayers at suburban Masses began to seem stale, and the collapse of Communism following Pope John Paul's visit to Poland and the emergence of Solidarity, was a major part of that.

The stirrings of a new liturgical movement began to make themselves felt, and at the same time enthusiasts for the Tridentine Rite grew in confidence, spurred on by the hostility of diocesan bureaucrats and a growing sense of injustice. The huge popularity of John Paul, his massive appeal to youth, the way he seemed to represent fatherhood and strength in an era when, in the secular world, fathers were being denigrated and nothing seemed certain, made the mass media take note.

By the time World Youth Day had become firmly established on the international Catholic agenda - and that took some while - a new generation had grown up which simply didn't see the Church, or the liturgy, in post-Vatican II terms. They see things differently. Of course this means that there are some things they have scarcely seen at all, things that vanished, for good or ill, forty years ago: women wearing hats in church, for example, or the use of beautifully-bound missals and prayer-books among the congregation.

And, more importantly, there are whole chunks of Catholic tradition, heritage, and folklore lost to them because of the destruction of beautiful sanctuaries in the name of 'renovation' and - most tragic of all - a collapse of Catholic religious instruction in schools and parishes through what has been accurately described as a 'catechetical revolution'.

But today's young Catholics in the Western world, each with his or her own reason for being present at church - a staunchly Catholic family, a good local priest, involvement in or around one of the New Movements, a lingering tradition despite semi-practising parents or a muddled education at nominally Catholic school - are now open to the idea of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a sense of Catholic identity, Latin chant on a summer evening.

WYD criticisms

I actually got involved with World Youth Day after reading criticisms of it on an ultra-conservative/ 'traditionalist' website. All sorts of things were denounced - immodest or vulgar dress, people eating ice-creams during a Papal speech - and I am sure that these things happened. But knowing that this was not the whole story - a niece had attended the Cologne event and spoken of it in detail and with great joy and enthusiasm - I decided to find out more. With preparations for 2008 and Sydney in hand, it seemed right to help the group of local young people, led by an dedicated young priest, who were planning to go.

This is the Benedict XVI era, and WYD is beginning to reflect that. World Youth Day was born in an era of a strong pop culture and aspects of that are going to be part of it all for a long while yet. But If John Paul was happy with foot-tapping to loud pop-style music if that was what brought young people together, Benedict isn't. The style is different and the Church seems more confident of her own traditions.

World Youth Day - and, probably more importantly, its local affiliated activities - is coming into the era of Sacramentum Caritatis, and of younger priests who were reading Cardinal Ratzinger's views on liturgy a decade ago and have made them their own.

Wider trend

There's something intangible about this sense of change, but it's happening. Somehow, people have picked up the idea that preparing for World Youth Day could usefully include learning how to sing some Latin ('It's an international language - you'll find you need it for singing in Australia') and that silent prayer is also definitely on the agenda. Images from Cologne show a scholarly Papa speaking of sacred things in a measured voice, and of a million glittering candles as night falls and the Blessed Sacrament is on a glowing altar high on a hill.

I am quite sure that World Youth Day 2008 will include all the usual things that a massive gathering of people must necessarily involve - a degree of noise and chaos, some events not to everyone's taste, bad behaviour among much good, tensions as things don't work out quite as planned. Not everyone who goes will find it as awe-inspiring as others will. And yes, there will be pop-style noises too.

But watch for the wider trend, the general mood, the direction in which things are going. Wake up, as they say, and smell the incense. The young people in this local group - not a mantilla or ribbon-strewn missal among them - were not bought up on a rich diet of Catholic traditions. There is a lot they can learn and discover in the years ahead. What is intriguing - and beautiful - is that the indications are that it seems increasingly likely that they are going to have the chance to do so.

Joanna Bogle is an English Catholic author, journalist, lecturer and commentator. Her article first appeared in the Women for Faith and Family publication Voices.

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