John Allen: Will Sydney's WYD Be a Repeat of Denver? Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 13 May 2008 15:46
As the date grows nearer, there is plenty of dire predictions and complaining going on in the Australian media. (See God's Big Day Out a Shambles" from the Australian to get the flavor.)

In an encouraging counterpoint, John Allen had a major editorial about World Youth Day run in the Sydney Morning Herald last Sunday. Allen writes that the World Youth Day most comparable to the one to be held this summer in Sydney is that
of Denver in 1993.

. . .it is entirely appropriate for Australians - especially Australia's 5.1 million Catholics, who will do most of the work and pick up part of the tab - to ask, "What do we stand to gain?"

Perhaps the best parallel for Australians to ponder is the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado.

Denver marked the first World Youth Day held outside a traditionally Catholic culture - previous instalments had been in Rome, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and Czestochowa, Poland. Somewhat like Australia, the Rocky Mountains are not known as an important Catholic crossroads, so heading into the event there were fears of low turnout, blase public reaction and a general whiff of failure.

Moreover, in 1993 the US was still looked upon with deep ambivalence in the Vatican. American Catholics were seen as rambunctious, often rebellious, and the US was viewed as a largely Protestant culture historically hostile to Catholicism. The idea of plunking the Pope down in such an environment caused more than one case of indigestion in Vatican offices.
In the event, Denver was a runaway triumph. Measured against modest expectations, turnout was impressive. More to the point, the 500,000 youth who showed up were wildly enthusiastic. The city rolled out the red carpet, and American media coverage was both extensive and overwhelmingly positive.

One can date a sea change in Vatican attitudes towards the US from that moment. Most importantly, the 1993 World Youth Day helped Rome to grasp that America's traditions of pluralism and church-state separation do not inhibit religion, but rather allow the faith to flourish. That is a theme Benedict XVI repeatedly stressed on his recent visit to Washington and New York.

This background helps explain why Denver offers such an intriguing parallel to Sydney. In some ways Australia stands today in Roman eyes where the US was in 1993. Wariness about the state of things Down Under was clear, for example, in a 1998 statement following a summit between Vatican officials and Australian bishops. It warned of a "crisis of faith" marked by widespread relativism.

As was once the case with the US, there is concern in Rome that Australia's egalitarian culture, with its emphasis on tolerance rather than truth, is not the best soil for Catholicism to flower. Lacking little direct contact with Australia, the perceptions of many Vatican officials are sometimes disproportionately shaped by media reports of conflict and the complaints that reach their offices from a handful of well-organised activists.

Sydney's World Youth Day thus represents a chance for Australia to recast itself in a positive light. If all goes well, the event could not only showcase the best of Catholicism for the Australian public, but it could also usher in a new "era of good feelings" with Rome.

Such a transformation would not merely be of intra-Catholic interest. The Vatican is a critical voice of conscience in global affairs, and Australia plays a key leadership role in its region of the world. It is healthy for everyone, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, when these two players are on good speaking terms.

Ironically, Denver's World Youth Day crowd of 500,000 was the smallest to date, as compared with 4 million in Manila in 1995, and 2 million in Rome in 2000 - yet arguably it had the most profound impact.
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Catholics in Denver agree - their World Youth Day was the beginning of a dramatic renewal and they are still feeling the impact 15 years later. May it be so again. Let's remember to pray for the success of this summer's World Youth Day and the renewal of the Australian Church.