Maija Paegle on World Youth Day in Australia

Australia is one of the least religious nations in the Western world. Although almost two-thirds of the population would identify themselves with a Christian denomination, almost a third of Australians do not identify with any religion. In the 2006 Australian Census, the largest Christian denomination was identified as Roman Catholic at 26 percent of the population. The next largest Christian denomination was Anglican at 19 percent. This census also showed that the largest population increase was in those who considered themselves associated with no religion, which increased by 800,557 people. The only religion that showed a decrease in population was Christianity, by 78,513 people. These facts and figures may just seem to continue to support the fact that there is a lack of religious devotion in Australia, but it also puts an interesting twist on the fact that Sydney, the capital of the state of New South Wales in Australia, was chosen to be the site of Catholic World Youth Day 2008. There are estimated to be 5.1 million baptized Catholics in Australia, and there are estimated to be 3,000 priests and 900 men and women in Catholic orders. Although Christianity on a whole may be in decline, Catholicism has been on the rise. This may be associated with the fact that the immigration policies that Australia has enacted have changed, allowing a diversity of immigrants into the country, not just those from the United Kingdom, who presumably would be mostly Anglican. Although the leading church tradition in Australia is Catholicism, active participation levels are quite low, and a majority of Christians do not routinely attend religious services. Along with the fact that Australia, even with our modern transportation systems, is still not one of the easiest places to get to, this again makes one wonder why Australia was chosen for World Youth Day.

World Youth Day 2008 was held in Sydney from July 15 through 20. It was the twenty-third gathering of this Catholic youth festival, and the current pope, Pope Benedict XVI, also making it his first visit to Australia, attended it. Despite the earlier mentioned obstacles, World Youth Day was a great success. It was not one of the biggest attendances recorded at a World Youth Day, but the attendance was also nothing to scoff at. Around 500,000 people from around the world were present to welcome the pope. During the live re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross around 270,000 people participated, but of even more importance, around 500 million people around the globe watched on TV. This international coverage was able to show the Catholics of the world that Australia is a country is which Catholicism is thriving. The Catholic Church of Australia wanted to show that it is important and influential in the global Catholic community. Around 400,000 people celebrated the closing Mass with Pope Benedict XVI. At this Mass, the pope announced that the next World Youth Day would take place in 2011 in Madrid, Spain. The fact that World Youth Day took place in Australia and will next take place in Spain, a country much more classically associated with Catholicism, shows that the Vatican has strong faith in the Catholics of Australia and hopes to have reignited the flame of devotion through inspiring the youth.

I was able to see this first hand for I was visiting Sydney just prior to World Youth Day. When I was there, there were already many pilgrims, and I could see excitement on all of their faces. It was easy to spot pilgrims in their yellow backpacks. I moved to Melbourne before the event commenced, but even in another city I saw many yellow backpacks throughout the event and many weeks after. I was able to watch many of the events of World Youth Day on giant TVs set up in public places in Melbourne. I talked first hand to people, Catholic and non-Catholic, who attended the event, and all said they were deeply inspired by the celebration. For young people all around the world to join together in one place for what they believe in, I thought was truly moving.

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