WYD and Catholicism Down Under Print
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 12 May 2008 06:41
I've been tracking internet reports about World Youth Day and it has been intriguing to get a glimpse about how this gathering is being viewed in Australia.

For instance, here is Australian Community Radio's interview with Jim Hanna, spokesman for WYD and Dr. Kathleen McPhillips, Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney, about religion online.

There's the internet as spiritual agora (as Mark Shea calls it):

"Well, major religious traditions, all of them have websites. Then you get new age religions, so lots of pagan websites and you get lots of witch websites and so on. Then you also get lots of religious healing sites, sects and cults are on the internet. There also very productive websites, such as interface dialogue discussions between faith tradition. So it can be a space where there is a lot of diversity and tolerance.

And then a fascinating question that receives a pretty limp answer that would be phrased more cautiously in the much more religious American context, I think.

Is it that religion is changing? Or is it just taking on a new form of communication?

"This is a very good question and it’s one of THE questions – does the internet change the nature of religion and religious practice?

I think the answer to that has to be yes. I mean, first of all, there’s the question of the internet itself. It is a kind of mysterious technology. It’s a form of virtual or cyber space – we can’t see it. It isn’t magic – so how does it happen that we can connect up with people that live so far away from us in less than a second? So there’s a question about whether the internet itself is a kind of religious experience and may encourage people to believe in something that doesn’t exist. Then there’s another question about whether people can have religious experiences on the internet using some of the sites."

Dr. McPhillips is pretty obviously more familiar with "non-traditional" religions like internet only Jedi faith:

"What I know about is the New Age sites and I think they’re using them for a lot of different things. You can set up your own website for starters and you can advertise yourself and your religious preferences. But I think for information, to join a group, to do healing practices and also to have fun. You can access things like an Ouija board, so the black arts are there as well. I mean some religious groups only have an existence on the internet and there I’m particularly thinking about Jedi Religion. Now I don’t know if you recall but in the early 2000s (2001 Census) 70 000 Australian nominated Jedi religion as their religious practice and it was a phenomenon that also happened in other Western countries like Britain. From that developed a number of internet sites on Jedi religion so you can actually join a group and become a Jedi Master or practice some of the more esoteric practices associated with Jediism."

And this startlingly hostile phrase from the interviewer:

"In what has been termed by some as the Big Prey Out, over 60 000 Aussies from outside of Sydney will join double that from all over the world in this years World Youth Day."

I googled "Big Prey Out" and got almost no results so its not exactly a household phrase even in Australia. So "some" must be the interviewer's circle of friends.

And finally a description of the digital prayer wall by Jim Hanna, the WYD spokesman:

"The other thing that I think most people are finding very innovative is an idea we got when U2 were out here the last time, where you could text your phone number to a particular number and you could see your name come up on the big screen at the event. Well what we want to do is do that in a Catholic sort of way. Often people want other people to pray for something, some intention or other, it could be world peace, it could be freedom from hunger, it could be for a sick relative, it could even be for their footy team to win – and Lord knows I’ve been doing a lot of praying for my team! They had a win last week so that’s good – it does work everyone! So what we’re doing is a Digital Prayer Wall where you can text your prayer to a particular number and it will come up on the screen where a couple of hundred people are gathered. It’s great to know that at least some of the people in that crowd would all being praying for that same intention. It gives people a sense of warmth and reassurance. So that’ll be a first and hopefully that will be something that continues on to the next WYD."

What strikes me is the difference in tone and language from what would be in such an interview in the US. There's almost no obviously religious language and its all so vague. Is there little or no popular religious culture that one can tap into?

If not, you can see why Cardinal Pell is so controversial. In the US, he'd be conservative. in Australia, he's an earthquake.

There has been much talk in Australia this past week about the fact that registration for WYD is falling seriously short of the numbers expected - and the very substantial financial losses involved. Luxury hotels had reserved thousands of rooms and almost none have been taken. How might this be affected by the economic downturn, oil prices, etc?

The WYD coordinators projected 250,000 pilgrims but right now only 123,000 have signed up and only 30,000 of those are Australian. Almost as many Americans have signed up as have Australians so far. WYD organizers insist that many young people sign up late and that they still expect to make their 250,000 target.

Only 30,000 Australians registered so far? Now that I find startling.

There are about 5 million Catholics in Australia but recent national surveys show that only 13 - 15% attend Mass once a month (which is the criteria for "practicing" in Australia). so 750,000 practicing Catholics. And 30,000 Aussie pilgrims so far,

I'm going to continue to watch this whole situation. Australia is the least historically Catholic and least religiously observant country that has hosted a World Youth Day. How will that affect the impact?

In Colorado, they are still talking about the profound impact that Denver's World Youth Day has had. But do we have a sense of the long term impact in Toronto, for instance? Anyone know?